There’s a story about fashion photographer Arthur Elgort’s image Stella Diving (1995) that, for some, perfectly captures his gift for the unexpected and the impulsive in an industry historically known for its preciousness. Elgort, by that time already a staple at Vogue and other magazines, spent one hot afternoon shooting the British model Stella Tennant in Watermill, New York—only to capture her when, sweltering under her heavy winter clothing, she dove headfirst into a pool on-site. Such is the candid sensibility that Elgort has brought to the opulent—and at times inert—fashion industry since the beginning of his career nearly five decades ago.
When Elgort—whose work is currently on view in “Arthur Elgort: The Big Picture”at Staley-Wise Gallery—began shooting fashion editorials, it was his sensitivity to narrative and action that garnered him attention. Trained as a painter, Elgort eventually sought a more collaborative process, and began his photography career working with dancers. Later, he would credit that background for making him more attentive to movement than his contemporaries. In dance photography, as he explains, “you have to be a little faster.” One image in the collection, of Shaun Casey for Harper’s Bazaar, obscures the subject’s recognizable features altogether, portraying instead the imprint of her body inside a billowing, inky swath of fabric.
Elgort, also credited for using natural light when high-contrast studio lighting was in vogue, favored casual photographs over hyper-posed, sterile work. In the assembled photographs, iconic models from the early ’90s to the present day are caught in relatively unguarded moments: Christy Turlington peers stealthily out from a sunroof; Kate Moss sits atop an elephant; Gia, in a frank moment, inverts the camera to gaze back on the cameraman. At the time, Elgort’s tendency to shoot less painstakingly coiffed models and take inspiration from photojournalism was seen as radically inventive. Now it’s a staple of the industry. But as he said recently to Robin Givhan, longtime fashion editor at The Washington Post, “I wasn’t trying to change fashion photography. I was just thinking about getting a job and doing it well.”
“Arthur Elgort: The Big Picture” is on view at Staley-Wise Gallery, New York, Nov. 14, 2014–Jan. 10, 2015.