Join us for an enriching dialogue between Holden Luntz and renowned photographer Melvin Sokolsky. From Sokolsky’s upbringing in New York City to his groundbreaking “Bubble” and “Fly” series for Harper’s Bazaar, this conversation offers a fascinating glimpse into the life and work of a true visionary. Discover Sokolsky’s journey from humble beginnings to international acclaim as he shares captivating anecdotes and insights into his iconic photographs. Whether you’re a photography enthusiast or simply curious about the creative process, this discussion promises to inspire and enlighten. Don’t miss this opportunity to delve into the world of photography with one of its most innovative minds. Watch or read now for an unforgettable exploration of artistry and imagination!

Luntz: The joy of this is that Melvin Sokolsky has not been here, and he’s been somebody that we’ve been showing for the last couple of years. He’s come from LA. I sort of twisted his arm and got him to come. Tomorrow he turns around and flies back first thing in the morning for a pre-party for the Academy Awards. So it’s a tight trip for him, but we are very happy that he came.

I’m pleased to see all of you here, Harry and Gigi Benson and Joyce Tenneson, two fabulous artists that are part of our roster here. We are very pleased to have you here today as well. We are extraordinarily happy to have this show, and I’m thankful for everybody being here, and I’m thankful for my team.

I think a good place to start is when you grew up. You did not grow up in a privileged life. So can you talk about how you sort of evolved into a profession of photography?

Sokolsky: I will make an attempt. I came from a very poor family in New York City, lived on the lower East Side, and I was literally a depression baby. And I started to look at photographs starting with my father. He was working at a lithography place, and he would bring back magazines and books that they printed, and I would look at them and say, “Where did this come from?” He’d say, “I don’t know.” And then I saw things that they had done for Harper’s Bazaar. So I went to the newsstand and found the magazine.

I wanted to be in Harper’s Bazaar. Everybody laughed at me. They said, “You don’t understand. What do you know, you’re just a kid.” So, I started taking pictures. At first at the newsstand where there was a homeless person. When I brought the picture, developed it and made a print, I felt very bad because I realized I had no right to take a picture of this man who didn’t know me. The picture made everybody who looked at it feel very bad. And at that time, subconsciously, somehow, I decided that I wanted to take pictures to make people feel good. There was enough bad, you can see around you, why not make somebody feel good?

So I started to take some pictures for myself that I thought were feel-good pictures. And I brought them up to an advertising agency called Doyle Dane & Bernbach. An author, Ira, said, “You know, there’s something about your pictures that I like. So keep coming back. I’ll get something for you to do.” So what I did was, I came back in about a month, and he reaches under his desk and throws me a coat with a fur collar. He said, “If you do something decent with this,” that’s the word he used, “I’ll give you a name credit.”

Melvin Sokolsky, Anne St. Marie Dog (Anne St. Marie and Muga), 1959, Archival pigment photograph
Melvin Sokolsky, Anne St. Marie Dog (Anne St. Marie and Muga), 1959, Archival pigment photograph

Sokolsky: So I took a picture. I actually took a picture of my wife in it, and some friend of mine said, “You don’t understand, get somebody that’s a famous model.” “You’re doing everything through with things that you love.” And they might be right so I called Ford Model Agency, and they said, “We never heard of you.” They said, “Where are you located?” I said, at that time, I had rented a studio at 322 East 39th Street. Said, “Oh, you’re around the corner.” So who do you like? I said, “Anne St. Marie.” They said oh we’ll send her around this afternoon because they were literally four blocks away, and Anne St. Marie comes in.

When I opened the door, the next-door neighbor’s Pekingese came in, and I took a picture of her with my own lights because back then, there was a standard lighting system. I painted the studio black, contrary to the trend of having a fresh white studio, which earned me the title of “master of gloom.” I did this because I realized that having white flats would scatter light everywhere unless you had a white bounce. With a black studio, I could use flats as a fill and strategically place lights for better control.

I experimented with this setup and shot six rolls of six sheets of 8 by 10 film. I showed them to Ira, who thought they were pretty good. They ended up in Harper’s Bazaar as an ad with my name on it, which thrilled me. Then, Henry Wolf, the art director of Bazaar, called me after seeing my work and offered me two pages and a cover try. Initially, I thought it was a prank call from my brother, but it turned out to be genuine.

After impressing Henry with my work, I became a permanent photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. However, I faced challenges due to differing visions within the magazine. Diana Vreeland encouraged me to push boundaries and try new things, while Nancy White preferred a more conservative approach.

I remember a specific incident where I photographed a flowered dress in a peeling tenement hallway, which Diana loved for its impressionistic feel. However, Nancy objected, wanting something more elegant. Eventually, the photo ran, and despite initial backlash, it was accepted by subscribers.

I faced similar challenges when I tried to shoot subway scenes, which were considered too unconventional for the Bazaar audience. Despite this, I received support from Henry White, who understood the importance of evolving artistic identities.

Nancy White’s reluctance to embrace new ideas led to some tension, but eventually, she entrusted me with covering the Paris collections in 1963. With Diana’s secrecy, we worked on a unique concept involving Ali McGraw, Mrs. Vreeland’s assistant, and Nena von Schlebrügge, a model at the time. It was a collaborative effort marked by challenges and successes, reflecting the dynamic nature of fashion photography.

Melvin Sokolsky, Free Bubble Parking II, 1963, Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum
Melvin Sokolsky, Free Bubble Parking II, 1963, Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum

Luntz: So this was a for you, it was sort of a breakaway idea?

Sokolsky: Yes, I had the okay.

When I was a kid I used to go to on trips with my father and I saw a painting called The Garden of Earthly Delights by Hieronymus Bosch, and in it there’s a plant that’s a bubble with people in it, and I’ve always dreamed that I would like to do that. I didn’t know how to do it. So at any rate, what happened was, I built the bubble, we tested it in the studio. In fact, one of the tests is right on the wall there, that’s outside of my studio, which is the middle picture of New York. And obviously it was possible to do.

Then we went to Weehawken, New Jersey, and we got the actual Bazaar dress. We shot it, I brought it in, Nancy White said, “Wow, it’s beautiful, you can do beautiful things.” They used it as cover.

Then Dick Avedon got wind of it and said, “You better be careful, you know, this is in New York and you’ll have everything you want. In Paris, we don’t have all these things so make sure that he promises to shoot it in the studio if something goes wrong.”

Studio assistant, Ali MacGraw (in a furry hat) and Paris Bazaar editor Marion Capron stabilizing Plexiglass bubble during a 1963 shoot on Pont Alexandre III, Paris

Sokolsky: This is Paris, the lady with the funny hat is Ali McGraw. And this is on the bridge Pont Alexandre III, and that’s where we will lifting the bubble to do that picture.

Melvin Sokolsky, Bubble On Seine Kick II
Melvin Sokolsky, Bubble On Seine Kick II, 1963, Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum

Luntz: Any sort of mishaps? Any sort of funny stories?

Sokolsky: Yes, there’s a funny story. My idea was to create a narrative that you would start over New York, you land on the Seine, you go through Paris. But my idea was, any place around Paris to shoot, I wanted doorways and signs. I didn’t want to do the Eiffel Tower I didn’t want to do travel. Instead, I wanted to capture the essence of Parisian life without the clichés.

We had a hairdresser named Alexon. He was doing Simone’s hair, and the truck that’s being used was about 100 feet away. Simone came walking down, walked over to the bubble and by that time, we were shooting the collection for March and it’s late February. Her hair was blowing all over. Ed said to me, “You know what. I think we ought to gather up and get to the studio because this wind is going to keep coming. You have the dress for now.

I said, “Wait a second. We can do it.” And they said, “How?” I grabbed Alexon and brought him into the bubble with Simone. He quickly styled her hair, and as soon as he was done he slipped out and we began shooting. I shot 20 rolls of film and I had Bubble on the Seine.

As we were shooting, we discovered a darkroom conveniently located just a block away from the St. Regis Hotel where we were staying. This darkroom was used to develop prints for the next day’s pouch to be shipped to New York. Nancy White, who was residing at the St. Regis Hotel, insisted on signing off on everything before it was sent out.

So, regardless of the time, I would bring the prints to Nancy’s room for her approval before sending them off to New York. This process continued smoothly until we reached the last picture of the collection.

I had an assistant named Frank Finocchio, who had previously worked at the Avedon studio. He was instrumental in teaching me about archiving and organizing negatives. Frank’s meticulous system involved numbering the negatives, putting notches on choice ones, placing them in manila envelopes, and labeling them accordingly.

Frank’s expertise was invaluable, especially considering my tendency to shoot everything and simply number them in sequence. He helped streamline our workflow and ensure that our images were well-organized and archived properly.

Melvin Sokolsky, With Chair II
Melvin Sokolsky, With Chair II, 1963, Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum

Luntz: When you look at the bubble pictures, especially the bubble pictures in France, and you see the the people that are watching… Most fashion work, if it was shot in the studio, everybody that’s there belongs there, what about these people?

Sokolsky: Here’s my idea. Let’s say all of us walked down the street and all of a sudden there was an explosion in the sky, or two people flying down from arches. Everybody would react in their own way. My idea was to put something in the perspective that nobody would expect. So everybody’s dressed in their own clothes even if I went to a school.

Melvin Sokolsky, Bar Du Flick, 1963, Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum
Melvin Sokolsky, Bar Du Flick, 1963, Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum

Luntz: So those are not extras?

Sokolsky: There was not one extra in these.

Luntz: They are people just responding in awe to what they’re seeing.

Sokolsky: Yes. Extras would be phony. You didn’t have to direct. When the cop came up to Simone he was like, “Get out of here. What are you people doing here?” But he was alone and my idea was, by the time he gets anybody here, we’ll go.

Melvin Sokolsky, Bicycle Street II, 1963, , Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum
Melvin Sokolsky, Bicycle Street II, 1963, Infused dyes sublimated on aluminum

Luntz: So can you talk about why some of the pictures are color and some of the pictures are black and white?

Sokolsky: Yes, at Harper’s Bazaar, if you take three or four pages, let’s say you do Dior and you take four pages, you may get six pages of color. But if you take no ads or one ad, your pages are in black and white.

So, here was the mistake that I made about archiving. When a picture was chosen and it was not to be printed, it went in one box. When it was color and it was not to be printed, it went in another box. Frank wrote on the box ‘outs’. So that ‘outs’ box would have been sitting on a shelf under my house with all the archive as ‘outs’. And people started to say, “You have it in color.” I said, “I did shoot it in color, but I don’t know where it is. I can’t find it. I literally thought it was lost.”

Then, one day, I was told by my wife, she said, “You know what? You can’t find it. People are asking, why don’t you open every box, that, you know, just methodically open everything?” I opened the ‘outs’ box, and I started to cry. That was just a part of it there. So, we started printing and what really happened, that was interesting was I’ve looked at these pictures for so long I can’t see them anymore. It’s sort of like, no matter how good a picture is, or how everybody tells you how wonderful it is, it’s sort of like anything wears out. When we started printing these, it was like a new life for me in many ways because I had never seen them printed in color.

But, besides that, I realized that when you send stuff up to a magazine, the art director makes the choice, and then they say, “Do you like it?” or whatever. They picked all the wrong pictures. If you look at that issue and look at what they picked, it’s scary. And what I discovered after a while, the closer the picture, the suit was or whatever the girl was wearing, those are the things they chose. Management wanted to show details in a dress that somebody was going to buy. It was the difference between, let’s say, Diana and Nancy. Two very, very nice people. One was somebody that said, “You see these buttons there, there’s so and so,” and Diana wanted an impression. She said, “If you love something, you’re going to look at it, and if you try it on and you don’t like it, you’re not buying it.” These are expensive clothes. At any rate, that’s what happened.

Melvin Sokolsky and Crew, 1963
Melvin Sokolsky and Crew, 1963

Luntz: And what was it like working with a crew? I mean, Simone D’Aillencourt, for example, your model, how was she and all the people, with the boom and the crane?

Sokolsky: Okay, here’s the thing I discovered. We did everything with people in my studio. We had Eli, we had my brother helping, me, Frank Fenocchio, Ali. So, it was like a crew of like 10 people, maybe, including the people from Harper’s Bazaar. So, shipping this stuff to Paris was like about $3,000 or $4,000. Then, there was Michelle and the other crane guy. And we got a small crane that lifted signs.

When I move my hand down, Michelle would lower down the crane. If I raise my hand… It was simple adjustments. We had the normal insurance, no insurance. So, the whole shoot maybe was with everything: shipment, people;  $12,000 – $15,000. Right now, if you try to do that, it would have to be a million dollars. It’s prohibitive now.

Luntz: But everybody worked well together as a team?

Sokolsky: Other than the first day, because everybody was scared.

As pictures were coming in and we were getting feedback, “Magnificent, the best thing that’s ever been for Harper’s Bazaar or any magazine.” And, then I got back something when it finally got printed and Ali came to me. She said, “Now, don’t you dare say this to anybody, but Mr. Avedon said, ‘What has he got for a second act?'” So then I couldn’t figure it out. And at that point, Henry had left, and he became a friend and gave me a lot of work in his other magazine. I said, “I don’t understand.” He said to me, “Stop being a 12-year-old.” I said, “What do you mean?” He said, “He sees you as competition.” I said, “How could that be?” Dick Avedon, he was God, and I didn’t understand that until after that happened.

Melvin Sokolsky, Bird Cage Intrigue, Paris, 1963
Melvin Sokolsky, Bird Cage Intrigue, Paris, 1963, Infused Dyes Sublimated on Aluminum

Luntz: So I have another question for you. The three photographers that we’re showing here, Jim Lee had a very active commercial life doing fine art pictures and doing a lot of commercial campaigns. Albert Watson the same thing, he does his own editorial work, which is fine art work, and a lot of commercial work. What about you? What was it like to do a lot of commercial work? Were you allowed to be as creative as you wanted to? How did you mix the two?

Sokolsky: Actually yes.

Somebody told me a story. It was Irving Penn, who was like a God to me. You’ve got to understand my age and that these are like all the Gods. Penn did some makeup ads, and when you looked at his editorial work, it was streaked on peoples’ faces – like wonderful editorial pictures. Unlike other editorial pictures that were very straightforward. So when they asked Mr. Penn why he couldn’t do it to look like editorial, he said, “You gave me a job that was supposed to solve an advertising problem, and that’s the best way to solve it. You didn’t say to me that you wanted something offbeat or whatever.”

When I thought about it was, and I was not brilliant or anything. If I took a picture and it didn’t interested me, it never came out good. So I felt, why not take the full shot? Why not make any picture you take as good as you can make it? Forget who the advertiser is. As long as it has certain criteria that fits the bill of what they need, why not? So, that’s the way I did everything, and I got a huge amount of work. I got accounts from everybody that was considered the greats at that time. I got DuPont.

I remember coming out of a meeting with somebody, Bernie Howitt gave me a big campaign, and the person that was in there before me was Dick Avedon. He had talked to them about a location, and I remembered him saying something like, “Who’s a greater designer than God?” In other words, whatever the location was. And I couldn’t even put sentences together that were involved with impressing somebody in that way. But I got the account. Why? Because what I did was fresh, it wasn’t a smartass answer.

Melvin Sokolsky, Lip Streaks, Donna Mitchell, New York, 1967
Melvin Sokolsky, Lip Streaks, Donna Mitchell, New York, 1967, Infused Dyes Sublimated on Aluminum

Luntz: So, here’s something that sort of ties into that. If I was an artist and I wanted to pick a decade to work that was fresh with ideas, fresh with the world changing in huge ways, and fresh with sort of potential, it would be the 60s. I mean, the 60s were a magical generation. I know that um, Joyce was active then, Harry Benson took some of his most creative work then. I mean, so many photographers, this was like an emerging decade. What were your influences in the 60s? Did you have any? And what was it like working then compared to working now?

Sokolsky: What I would say is, secretly I was a smartass kid. I looked at pictures and criticized them in an odd way. I said, “Well, this is boring. I’d rather look at the paintings at the Metropolitan.” When I looked at paintings, there were ideas, all painters had pallets of their own.

It became a time when the umbrella light was invented, everybody used an umbrella light at 10 ft away at F16. I made fluorescent lights, and people said, “You can’t use fluorescent, it makes people look green.” But I used day glow fluorescent that made beautiful skin, and I was able to control the light. They said, “How did you do that?”

So, inventiveness is always wanted. It’s more than words, it’s more than an individual. If you go someplace and you see something and it gives you a stick in your heart, you say, “Hey, I want that.” It’s not about words or talking somebody into something. It’s an emotional thing. How do people fall in love? We walk down the street a somebody says “Wow isn’t she great, and I say, “Huh…” So everybody has a vision, but in that vision it is highly important that it reaches people, and when you reach people in the proper way and it gives them joy, for instance let me give you an example.

Harry Benson took a picture of The Beatles jumping on the bed. When you look at that, if you can’t see that’s joy, there’s something wrong with you. I’m not trying to be cute here or anything but that’s the truth.

Melvin Sokolsky, Mirror Dance II
Melvin Sokolsky, Mirror Dance II, 1965, Infused Dyes Sublimated on Aluminum

Luntz: I think great pictures outlive their time. They have a presence. You look at them and they have an incredible freshness. A lot of 60s pictures are like that.

Can I ask you about this picture, because if I was writing a paper on complicated images, to me it is one of the most complex images with the use of the mirror, the use of the framing, the tilted construction. I don’t know how she’s not terrified being there. Can you talk about how you built it?

Sokolsky: They talk about supermodels of that time. Dorothea McGowan is a supermodel beyond anybody’s belief. Number one, a week before I asked her to do the collection in 1965, Flying Pictures, her father died. She never told me and decided to go anyhow; she’s fearless.

Melvin Sokolsky, Fly Dior, Paris, 1965
Melvin Sokolsky, Fly Dior, Paris, 1965, Infused Dyes Sublimated on Aluminum

When we did a picture called ‘Fly Dior’, and she was hanging off an 1/8th inch cable, five stories up. If that cable broke, she would fall to the street on Avenue St. Montaigne. And, yet she’s up there.

I used to say to her, ‘How do you do it?’ She said, ‘Because, Melvin, I trust you. And the truth is that I never told you, I can fly.’

Melvin Sokolsky, Mirror Dance II

Luntz: How many times did this have to happen till it happened right?

Sokolsky: This picture is interesting to me. And let me explain. Do you know Velazquez’s Las Meninas? Well Velazquez, he paints everybody in the mirror. In other words, you are looking at things through a mirror, including himself. So what I did is, I found this room. It is actually the dining room in the St. Regis Hotel, it’s not a set. And what I did was I flew her behind me, and she’s reflected in the mirror. So you see, the people.

Luntz: Are those actors? They’re just not having dinner there, right?

Sokolsky: Those are just people. Let’s say, I go to this crowd and say “You, you, you, and you, do want to get dressed and come tonight?” And we put it together.

Luntz: And how is she flying? I know there’s a corset…

Sokolsky: Okay, try to picture this. I welded 3 inch tubes of steel pipe into a tripod. I made a U-shaped piece of welding, and I put a bolt through it. I put a cable with a wrench at the back, like a hand wrench, and the cable dropped and hooked onto one of the three hooks. If you took the top hook, she would hang straight. If you took the middle hook, she would lean more towards you and so on. So I was to control that, and two guys sat at the other end. I could take that thing in here. That set up could go anywhere.

Melvin Sokolsky, Fly Low, Paris, 1965
Melvin Sokolsky, Fly Low, Paris, 1965

Sokolsky: I was never an engineer. I never had the great education that I would have liked to have. I started at CCNY and had to leave because my father got sick, came down with multiple sclerosis, and I had to support my whole family. But if I had an idea, I was unrelentless to do it. I dreamed about it. I could see it, and somehow, as if I lived in another life, I knew how to do it.

Luntz: And it always worked?

Sokolsky: Yes, it always worked.

In fact, Eli, who was a safety freak in my studio, said, “Melvin, you’re not an engineer. This is a human being you’re putting in there.” And I said, “Eli, let’s test it.” And when we tested it, I would put a 250 pound person on it, and we’d have to put a third person on the other end. I said, “Break it.” They couldn’t. So then he started to trust me. But where it came from, I don’t know. I just saw it.

Melvin Sokolsky, School Yard Tree II, 1963
Melvin Sokolsky, School Yard Tree II, 1963

Luntz: If I was a psychologist, a lot of the pictures that you’re really famous for are pictures about flying, are pictures about defying gravity. Where do those come from?

Sokolsky: When I was a kid, if I had a fever, I sort of felt that I could levitate off the bed, and I would ask my mother, “Did I fly into your room?” She looked at me like I was nuts. But whenever I had a fever, I felt that I could fly. In fact today, sometimes I have a feeling that I can levitate, but I just can’t figure out why it’s not working.

We’re complex creatures and things happen that we don’t understand. For me, my son is pretty much like this too. We’re looking at the stair rail there, and I said, “It’s beautifully made,” And my son, who’s a details person, said, “Yeah, but the bolts are mismatched.” Okay, that’s the oddity of who we are.

I have a term that I always use. I would show the copyright patent guy my two pictures. He would say, “But they’re the same picture.”

I said, “No, they’re not.” I said, “You don’t notice that her head is tilted up?”

“Oh, I didn’t notice that.”

“Well, you should notice that, that’s your job to notice what’s different. If you’re sitting there and you move your hand over to your knee, and I took a picture of you where your hand is now, isn’t it a different picture?”

I call it aesthetic blindness. For instance, in Harper’s Bazaar, Bubble on the Seine, if you get the magazine, it’s not the picture we use. The head is tilted up. The one that I use is where the head is looking forward. It’s the next shot. You make a circle on the contact sheet of the one you like best but then somebody at the magazine thought that another one was better. That’s nonsense. The originator of any idea had reasons that are beyond any of the ones you could pick. But you certainly have a right to like what you like.

I was with a friend of mine named James Rosenquist and we were looking at a Picasso exhibit and they had a person walking along with us, and that person walking along with us was somebody telling us about Guernica, the Picasso painting. A lady was standing next to us and she said to her friend, “My Gloria brought a picture home from school that’s much nicer than that Picasso. I put it on the refrigerator and everybody loves it.” She has certainly has a great right to believe that, but it’s not right. Historically, if you looked at everything on the planet with the highest sophistication and reasoning and so on, Gloria’s picture is not better than Guernica.

Luntz: We’ve got a little bit of time left, I want to show something that’s 50 years later. It’s hard to think when you see these bubble pictures because they’re so fresh.

Melvin Sokolsky, Jennifer Aniston, Harper's Bazaar US December/January 2014-2015
Melvin Sokolsky, Jennifer Aniston, Harper’s Bazaar US December/January 2014-2015

Sokolsky: Harper’s Bazaar called me and said, “Would you like to do a new shoot with the bubble?” I said, “Sounds interesting, but I don’t know where the bubble is. I have to build it.” So they said, “Okay, we’ll give you money to build it.” So we built it.

The way it’s made is that there’s two hemispheres. They take a sheet of plexiglass 3/8 of an inch thick and they put it on a flat board. The flat board has a hole in it that’s 6 feet, and then they heat it and it drops down to a 36 inch point where they stop. They let it cool. So now you have two hemispheres. I put a ring on them so I can hinge it, and there’s also another visual reason for it. The visual idea is that if you don’t have the ring, you will be able to see yourself. With the ring, I can avoid the reflections.

I’ll tell you my smart ass story I made up. The bubble has jet propulsion abilities. I make believe that I can fly anywhere on the planet. Einstein gave me some locomotion ideas, anti-gravity ideas that are incorporated in it. And she is piloting a rocket ship. She can go to California in 20 seconds. If you don’t believe, it you’re going to be surprised a couple years from now.

Luntz: But that’s the dream of flying and I think that’s artists. They leave the daily life.