Lessons from an Iconic Harper’s Bazaar Photographer

Artists tend to be elusive with the press. Like magicians, they can be wary of revealing their tricks. One in particular, Harper’s Bazaar photographer Melvin Sokolsky, confessed he felt burned by the press and swore against interviews for good. But all that changed in the days leading up to his show at SoHo’s Staley Wise Gallery. In discussion was much more than just the creative process behind his legendary “Bubble” series that popped onto the pages of Harpers in the early 1960s. Here are five life lessons distilled down from our conversation.

1) When the Editor of Harper’s calls, don’t hang up

Sokolsky nearly missed his big break. He hung up on Harper’s Bazaar Art Director Henry Wolf when he first cold called the photographer. Sokolsky figured it was his brother putting on a fake accent and pulling his leg when he heard the comical voice of Wolf come on the other end going on about a Fromm’s Fur ad and ending with an abrupt, “how would you like to work for Harpers?” Good thing he called back. The lesson here is that big breaks will come. They’ll knock at your door, most of the time just once. Sometimes twice, if you’re lucky. But it’s up to you to recognize and seize them.

2) There is a time and a place for being bull-headed

There were a lot of uphill battles when it came to the now legendary “Bubble” series. Opposition came from all sides. Richard Avedon, Sokolsky’s senior at Harper’s at the time, insisted they’d never get the contraption off the ground. The photo assistant found excuse after excuse not to do it. But Melvin was bull-headed. He had a vision, and he knew it would work. He let the power of his own convictions propel him toward finding a solution and convincing those around him. He drew out diagrams of how the bubble would be constructed — on a brown paper bag, no less — how it would operate, and would suspend from a thin cable. He even pulled a stunt in his studio to squash the rumbling that the cable wouldn’t be strong enough by hoisting his assistant’s VW right off the floor. The takeaway is that sometimes it’s really a matter of pure audacity that’s the difference between having your ideas heard or having them drowned by the roar of the world around you.

3) Fun pays off

During the Paris shoot, much to the chagrin of his American colleagues, Sokolsky could often be found drinking and making mischief with Parisian pals. One antic included driving actor Serge Marquand’s 1960s Citröen Du Cheval right through the lobby of a swank hotel. But, far from taking away from the photographer’s work, his mischievous spirit would serve him well. It was during a late night poker game that the band of merry makers would meet the police officer that would prove essential for getting his production team the necessary permits to pull off the elaborate photoshoot, a terrible feat at that time.

4) Analog vs. digital (it isn’t black and white)

There are two camps in the photography world: the lovers of analog that swear digital can’t compare, and the modern digital mavens who never looked back after the rise of the digital camera and advent of photoshop. Melvin lies somewhere in the middle, still insisting on using film, but embracing the pros of digital at the same time. He scans his negatives and uses digital technology to correct — “better that spot-tone”, as he put it. He’s still very sensitive about the paper he prints on. The point is that there usually is a best of both worlds.

5) It’s all about the lighting

Sokolsky has been quoted as saying: “I have always been fascinated by the way light can change the mood and meaning of a situation. As a boy, I remember my mother lighting a candle after sunset and the excitement that I felt when the mood of the room suddenly changed, bathing her in the warm, gentle light. I would say the success of an image is based on the harmony between the idea and the lighting….”. I would argue that the same goes for life. Success in life lies somewhere between the quality of the ideas that inform our actions and the way we choose to execute them.

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