A Breath of Fresh Air
If there is one name in the history of fashion photography who embodies the iconic ‘snapshot aesthetic’, it is Arthur Elgort. When Elgort made his debut as a fashion photographer, his improvisational and spontaneous style of shooting was a breath of fresh air in an era of heavy makeup, stiff, non-smiling mannequin like posing and controlled, studio lighting. A New York native who initially trained in painting, Arthur Elgort put down his paint brush for a camera when he first began photographing ballet dancers. His debut came in 1971 when a story of black and white photographs ran in British Vogue of a model playing with a dog. It wasn’t only a big break for Elgort, but was also a sort of preview for what he was about to introduce to the world of fashion photography; a natural optimism and a sense of liberation found within moments captured under natural light.
From then on, Elgort shaped his path for fashion photography, producing some of the most iconic images we know now, featuring the supermodels of the 90s including Christy Turlington, Linda Evangelista, Claudia Schiffer and Kate Moss. Elgort found inspiration working out of the studio therefore took his models out into the world and put them in real life scenarios. In a 2019 British Vogue interview, Elgort says;
“I’m good at the studio, but I wouldn’t hire me. I would hire Steven Meisel instead. I’m better at location.”
In fact, some of his strongest images were captured when Elgort was not officially working, those creative accidents perfectly caught in-between moments while models were getting ready behind the scenes, or talking amongst themselves not aware of Elgort’s presence. His purposeful choice of lively models with less hair and makeup further enhanced the emotionally charged images and presented a genuine photographic experience in a photojournalistic style.
One of the supermodels who Elgort created a few of his most crucial photographs was Kate Moss. The pairing and intrigue of Elgort and Moss together was not only fitting, but also was reflective of the times. Elgort’s photographs of Moss throughout the 90s, although few, displayed an effortless, intimate, carelessly fun aura, which was also an overall present mood throughout the decade. When Kate Moss came into the fashion scene, she caused a frenzy with her edgy, exciting, yet mysterious attitude. She was a chameleon and it was difficult to tell exactly what or who she was as photographers, designers and creatives could put their own fantasies onto her.
In a rare interview in 1999 for Interview Magazine, Moss said:
“I don’t like doing pictures as myself. I like to become someone else. In a picture, it’s hard to be yourself. But when you’re pretending to be someone else, it’s nice. It’s fun. It makes it interesting.”
As a visionary who took inspiration from transforming his models into characters in order to create a certain memorability and cinematographic narrative, such a blank canvas was perfect for Elgort. And that’s exactly what he did.
The Rose Bowl
For the iconic story titled “The Rose Bowl”, for example, that ran in Vogue US on April 1995, Elgort photographed Moss spending a sunny day in LA, pushing a shopping cart in a colorful pair of bikinis, or posing in a laundromat, giving the reader a taste of the very best of 90s, fresh, floral summer fashion. In an interview Elgort gave to I-D Magazine in 2019, he let us in for a little bit of behind the scenes from the story;
“ [I took it] in Los Angeles. We stayed at a crummy hotel and it was next to a supermarket, like a big supermarket. The editor was Brana Wolf, who is famous in Australia. She had a style and she said, ‘You’re going to the supermarket and buy anything you want. Here’s the money. Just make believe you’re shopping.’ That’s how we walked around. Kate enjoyed herself.”
Kate’s own way of not taking herself too seriously and her ability to transition into any character so effortlessly, combined with Elgort’s lens, charged with a timeless optimism created a series of energetic images showing the world how fresh and improvisational fashion could be.
Elgort’s smart vision of combining high fashion photography with unconventional environments further served to heighten the infectious fun and positivity that surrounded his photographs, again evident in “The Rose Bowl” story with Kate Moss. He wasn’t necessarily trying to highlight the clothes, instead he was portraying a lifestyle which the reader wanted to be a part of. The reader identified with the free, young, somewhat coquettish woman they saw flipping through the pages, having a relaxed day in Los Angeles without a care in the world. Although Moss is always central throughout the story, we also see that the general public becomes a part of the narrative as well. Elgort has Moss blend in with the crowd by directing her to not pose, but act as her natural self, while also making her the center of attention supported with the brilliantly colored styling by Brana Wolf, aiding to the overall selling point of the story: floral summer fashion.
Moss in Nepal
Moss’ undeniable charm came from her beauty and vulnerability conveyed, which Elgort perfectly captured in his portraits of Moss with an elephant in Nepal for British Vogue. The portraits can remind us of one other historic photograph of Dovima with elephants taken by Richard Avedon, however, there is an evident difference in the sentiment and mood that is conveyed in both photographs. Avedon’s portrayal of Dovima with elephants depicts a vastly glamorous, grandiose sight, celebrating haute couture. Dovima’s stance and bodily composition make her look as grand as the elephants, how haute couture is hoped to make you feel when worn. Although striking, there is a certain inaccessibility in this photograph. On the other hand, the feeling of vulnerability and innocence is present in Elgort’s photograph, a sentiment which also can be seen when we look at both Moss’ and the elephant’s gaze. Surely the looks Moss was styled in were equally luxurious as Dovima’s, but Elgort’s contemporary way of photographing how such clothes could be worn in ‘real life’ acted as a gateway to exciting and liberating opportunities for women at the time. The fact that Moss and Elgort are actually good friends out of the set also plays a role in setting the intimate tone and authenticity of the image.
In an article by Steff Yotka for Vogue from 2015, Elgort speaks of the famous series by saying;
“My favorite photo that I took of Kate Moss in the nineties is the one of her with the elephant, holding its trunk, in Nepal. It’s my favorite of her because when I took the picture the only people around were Kate, the elephant, the elephant trainer, and myself. Everyone else had gone to the beach so we kind of snuck away and did this quickly. Some of my favorite photos are the ones that I take during the downtime on set.”
While Elgort was an expert in capturing silent moments, he was also a more complex artist in the sense that he intelligently diffused multiple disciplines to create an image. Inspired by performance and performers from a young age when he was working as an usher at Canegie Hall surrounded by theatre, dancers and musicians, Elgort’s work almost always combines fashion and various other art forms to bring his photographs to fruition. Perhaps such a joyous mood full of life is most apparent in Elgort’s famed photograph of Kate Moss at Cafe Lipp in Paris, featured in Italian Vogue in 1993. Moss is seen standing atop a table with a cigarette in one hand, perhaps laughing or shouting at Elgort, surrounded by cheerful men around the table. Looking at the picture, you could almost hear the music, chatter and clicking of forks and knives in the background at that very moment when the moment when the photograph was being taken, almost like a movie shot in itself. A master in allowing his subject to move freely in a frame, Elgort simply explains the story behind the iconic image as;
“The waiters were eating their dinner and Kate jumped on the table. Of course, they liked that. You know, Kate can do anything and they like it, more or less.”
Kate in fact was always making an art out of having fun, whenever and wherever possible, and perhaps no other photographer than Elgort could capture such spontaneity better.
Shaping a New Era for Image-Making
The friendship shared between Arthur Elgort and Kate Moss gave birth to some of the most famous images in fashion photography history, gaining the iconic status for their cultural importance and rule-bending nature. Elgort’s spontaneous, snapshot style found life through Moss’ innate youthful energy and together they shaped a new era for image-making. And perhaps the perfect statement that explains their collaboration is how Elgort chooses to intellectually speak about his own style of photography saying;
“You can take a picture or you can make a picture. I much prefer the latter.”
Elgort’s openness as an artist to his subjects allow him to continue producing life affirming pictures that do not seem trapped by the confines of time or the style of clothes. Whether it’s from his early works or present, Elgort’s photographs will always be relevant with their light and naturalistic style, continuing to be a point of influence for other photographers.