Whether floating models down the Seine in a bubble or shrinking his subjects, Alice-like, to miniature heights, Melvin Sokolsky helped pioneer illusory fashion photography long before the age of digital enhancement took hold.
Though he is best known for his editorial fashion photographs for publications such as Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and The New York Times, Sokolsky’s work is not limited to that field. As Sokolsky said in an interview: “I resented the attitude that ‘This is editorial and this is advertising. I always felt, why dilute it? Why not always go for the full shot?” Toward the end of the 1960s, Sokolsky worked as both commercial director and cameraman.
In his iconic series, Sokolsky defies gravity by displaying the model, Simone D’Aillencourt, airborne within the bubble. She becomes an embodiment of grace and beauty, mesmerizing her observers as well as the viewer. Ultimately Sokolsky’s photographs created graceful illusions in an era predating photoshop, which remains remarkable more than half a century later.
In a golden era from the 50s to the 70s, at a time where American magazines dominated the advertisement industry, photographers would become the latest stars of popular, contemporary art. In the world’s leading fashion magazines, glossy covers and centerfold placements required striking images to run along with articles and promotions on their pages. Magazine executives demanded the work of exceptional artists who could create daring new perspectives and expressive ideas. A select number of photographers working in these magazines would elevate the commercial industry of fashion imagery to levels of artistry. One of the major players in the creation of legendary fashion pictures is photographer Melvin Sokolsky.
Innovative and determined, Melvin Sokolsky is known for his inventive and unique approach to fashion photography. He created an original and startling aesthetic that ultimately helped expand the creative potential of the genre and the medium.
“In these years the commercial imperative had failed to over-ride the arguably irrational urge to mass-circulation periodicals as a platform for personal expression. Following a time of neglect or indifference, the legacy of many photographers, artists, and designers is again investigated and celebrated. One of the more unusual figures in this pantheon was Melvin Sokolsky. His relatively brief but intense career as a photographer was simultaneously paradigmatic and evidence of how an individual signature could prevail in a commercial environment.” – Martin Harrison, Melvin Sokolsky, Affinities.
Born and raised in New York City, Melvin Sokolsky was never formally trained as a photographer. Instead, he learned the art of photography through a trial-and-error approach at a young age using his father’s box camera. He also relied on conversations with advertising photographers for mentorship. As an early memory, Sokolsky recalls his father showing him an image of Hieronymus Bosch’s “Garden of Earthly Delights,” which would impact the young Melvin. Some time afterward, while confined to a bed with a fever, Sokolsky would have recurring dreams of traveling above exotic lands in a spherical bubble, similar to the one depicted in the middle panel of a “Garden of Earthly Delights.”
As one of perhaps many unforgettable experiences with iconic paintings, the triptych inspired his artistic vision. Eventually, his bold ideas and experimental approach to fashion photography assignments while working for Harper’s Bazaar and Esquire would go against the grain of 1950s studio photography. Sokolsky created poetic visual illusions and highlighted the enormous potential for allure and magic in image-making.
In 1963 at the age of 21, Melvin Sokolsky joined the iconic fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Four years later, he would shoot a collection of images that have influenced the course of fashion photography and our understanding of it. Following the proposal and acceptance of one of his many bold ideas to the magazine’s editors – making his models fly through the streets of Paris – Melvin Sokolsky gathered a young, hard-working, and dynamic team to create some of the most memorable photographs in fashion history. With this series, Sokolsky ultimately expanded the possibilities of photography and became an early influence on a later ubiquitous ‘photoshop’ culture.
“My studio was like a Renaissance studio of the past. We built everything from the raw material to the finished product. We built the sets in house; Painted and decorated, developed, and printed the images, the client got the finished product. The studio was made up of people I trained. If you tried to do the Paris 1963 bubble shoot, it would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars today; not to mention the exorbitant cost of the insurance. We shipped all of the bubble elements and my studio crew Paris.” – Melvin Sokolsky.
While at Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine selected Sokolsky for the highly distinguished assignment of “shooting” the Paris collections. Yearning to make the most of this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, Sokolsky decides to bring his extraordinary childhood dreams to reality. He remembers his dreams of floating gracefully above the city plane within the constraints of a transparent sphere. After a series of trial shots taken over the Hudson River and near his studio won over the magazine’s editors, Sokolsky’s acrylic bubble, hoisting crane, production team, and model were all ready for their Parisian excursion.
For further reference, Melvin Sokolsky also took inspiration by a storefront holiday display. The display consisted of small acrylic bubbles containing ladies’ handbags and shoes suspended in the air. They appeared as if they were floating in space. This display triggered his early “bubble” memory, and the photographer made it his mission to track down the manufacturers of the window props. Eventually, he would commission them to make the massive bubble used in his pictures.
One of the most creative aspects that convinced the magazine’s editors to comply with Sokolsky’s audacious idea for a shoot was the use of the aesthetic of reportage. By relying on photojournalism’s matter-of-fact camera angles to document the model floating above Parisian streets, Sokolsky would play with reality. In this respect, while elevating one of the world’s first supermodels, Simone D’Aillencourt, the floating figure became a divine-like entity. This notion of rising above the city, above everyday concerns, gave the scene an eternal and untouchable feeling.
Importantly, the image of the floating beauty is almost too perfect to exist in the gritty urban setting. Sokolsky records this almost otherworldly spectacle with the same captivated attention of passerby looking in disbelief. Here, Sokolsky breaks away from the static, calculated imagery associated with fashion images. He creates a more spontaneous and creative scene. The Bubble series has had a lasting influence on the future creativity of fashion magazines, becoming an often referenced iconic photograph.
Once in Paris, these images were made possible through a large team consisting of the photographer, stylist, producer, assistant, studio manager, driver, and crane operator. Made before photoshop, the images created a suspension of disbelief. The floating bubble highlights the “mythical woman” within. Like in Bicycle Street, Paris, the pictures used ordinary citizens as witnesses to create a heightened illusion of a levitating being. Although photography’s ability to capture reality is today understood with the knowledge that they can be altered, Sokolsky’s images were made in a time way before digital manipulation. Ultimately, Sokolsky’s enigmatic pictures helped create a future that photoshop easily accommodates today.
Above all, Melvin Sokolsky’s daring project is an agent of influential transformation for fashion photography and culture. Breaking the rules of 1950’s studio photography, Sokolsky advanced the inventiveness of fashion magazines. By bringing the medium into the surreal realm, he engages the dream world. Thus, Melvin Sokolsky’s photographic legacy visually articulates the possibilities of spellbinding, poetic illusions in photography.