Melvin Sokolsky’s Affinities

By Martin Harrison

From the outset, Sokolsky’s fashion photography was distinguished by the rapid progression of its themes. Indeed he later believed that the obligation he felt to invent new ideas each month (a pressure that was partly of his own motivation) might have been excessive, and that to have explored certain concepts for longer periods would have been more productive for his own development. For some of the earliest Harper’s Bazaar sittings he eschewed any props beyond an unusually textured backdrop: "I was not interested in a clothes-horse–I was celebrating the beauty of the woman." Shortly afterward he began to explore his atavistic fascination with spatial dislocation in series in which he arranged the model’s limbs to accommodate claustrophobic box-frames (page 137), or peered from an elevated viewpoint into a maze-like structure constructed in the studio (page 23).

The ideas flowed incessantly. From the genre’s most extreme experiments with scale (pages 24-25), through fashion photography’s most overtly surrealist examples (pages 48-51), to highly unconventional multi-figure compositions (pages 160-161). Perhaps the most celebrated of all was the acclaimed "Bubble" series for the Spring 1963 Paris Collections (opening pages). These remarkable photographs constitute a kind of finale to the fantasy era of Paris fashion, a warm-humored tribute to inexplicable excess. Salvador Dali, whom he met at this time, became convinced that Sokolsky could actually make him fly. The logical outcome of the epic "Bubble" pictures for Sokolsky was to investigate further the simulation of flight, of weightlessness, which he did in some compelling sequences that continue to influence fashion photographers today (pages 21, 40-41, 115-116, 188).

Following these magical performances, Sokolsky felt the only route open to him was a return to simplicity. Photographed on a plain seamless studio backdrop, movement and lighting were the key factors in the appeal of images such as (pages 141,145). Sokolsky believed that lighting was an excessive obsession at that time, but, inspired by Josef von Sternberg’s cinema lighting, he achieved some subtle and innovative lighting schemes of his own. In the later 1960s he began to photograph fashion outside the studio environment, a direction that might have been developed further, had his career not taken a different turn. For the New York Times Magazine in 1969, he photographed (on a Polaroid camera) an extended story with three models in which he demonstrated an increasing concern with narrative that presaged his transition from stills to movies. It was a timely story–in one photograph the model smokes a joint–but it would be one of his last important contributions to fashion photography.

After about ten years at the top of his profession, Sokolsky found that art directors began to ask if he was able to translate the look of his stills into film. An experiment with a model in a tub full of bubbles was a great success, and soon he was in great demand: commercials, almost imperceptibly at first, began to dominate his output. He admits to being seduced by the movie camera and the challenge of exploring the grammar of film, and, with his reputation in this field escalating, in 1975 moved his studio to Los Angeles. The change did not signify the end of his involvement in stills, but commissions thinned as he was not only increasingly associated with film, but also removed from the main East Coast locus of assignments. The decade of his most intense involvement with stills was perhaps only a prelude to film, but it can also be viewed as a period of passionate involvement, the cumulative document of a creative spirit in a fascinating period of photographic history.

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