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Picture perfectionist: my life as a photographer.


As far back as I can remember,I've had a strong sense of the visual. My earliest memories are visual, and the images I loved were the Chesterfield Girls and my mother's magazines: Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. It was an enchanting world; as I leafed through these magazines, I entered a complete world of fantasy.

My grandfather took meto the first movie I ever saw--Queen Christina--and instantly another magical world opened up for me, introduced by the most perfect distillation of female beauty I'd ever seen or could hope to see: Greta Garbo. I was spellbound by her close-ups. She was luminous. I've no idea what the plot of Queen Christina was. I saw only Garbo--her face filling the screen, her eyes elegantly lined in black and luxuriously lashed, her perfect skin--I'd never seen anyone produce such an aura. Every time she reappeared in the movie I studied how that line around her eyes was drawn; I tried to single out the components of her incredible face. How could anyone human be so beautiful? I was so enraptured my grandfather was worried. "Don't take Francesco to any more movies," he told my parents. "He believes them!"

Even as a small child I wanted tocapture something equally beautiful. Photographs from my mother's magazines and seeing Garbo filmed drew me instantly to the astonishing contraption that made both possible: the camera.

By the time I was in high school Ihad no doubts about what I wanted to be: a fashion photographer.

I landed my first full-time job atBecker's Studio, which produced fashion catalogs. I was only a third or fourth assistant, but I was snappy and clean and I learned quickly. I met two photographers there who became friends--Freddy Baker and a Mexican named Louis Lemus.

One of my jobs was to go to thedarkroom every morning and order 8"x10" plates of color, daylight if we were shooting outdoors, or tungsten if we were doing an indoor sitting. One day I ordered outdoor film because we were going up to Grant's Tomb; we worked all day, came back, and sent the film off to Kodak--everything as usual. HoweveR, the next morning when I arrived for work, I got off the elevator to find Mr. Becker screaming and tossing 8"x10" sheets of developed film in my face. "What have you done!"

Apparently the darkroomman had given me the indoor, not the outdoor, light color the day before, and all of the Grant's Tomb shots were ruined. Mr. Becker had decided that I--and only I--was to blame. I let him rant and yell until he was blue in the face and then calmly told him I wasn't going to be anybody's scapegoat and quit on the spot. Here I was at the age of 16, walking away from the first real photography job I'd ever had!

It turned out to be the bestthing I could have done. Freddy and Louis told me there were openings for assistants at Vogue. They made an appointment for me with Claire Mallison at Vogue Studios.

I try now to think how I must haveappeared at that interview: I was small, thin, with black curly hair, and raging with enthusiasm. I wore jeans (which in the 1940s you only wore if you were a farmer or a construction worker) and a sweater. Claire hired me.

I worked with so many photographersat Vogue. Cecil Beaton arrived a few times, and John Rawlings and Horst were the stars. I worked mostly for Horst. Early on, I had a lucky break--Horst's assistant left suddenly and he needed a replacement: the replacement was me.

There was great excitement in thestudio one day soon after I'd begun working with Horst: Marlene Dietrich had arrived. The great Dietrich in the same room with me! It was even better than the first time I'd seen Garbo on the screen--here was a goddess in the flesh, alive and breathing and right across from me!

She sat down, and I arranged theback light, Horst abruptly spitting out "Left, right, left, right" to get the light adjusted exactly right. When I looked into the camera and brought that face--that Dietricch face I'd seen on movie screems thousands of times--brought it into focus, I nearly passed out. She was every bit as beautiful in that room as I'd seen her in any movie.

After I left Vogue studios, I metBabs Simpson, a wonderful woman who was very influential in my life and who helped to launch me on my own as a photographer. It was she who introduced me to Eleanore Hillebrand, a friend of hers who had become the fashion editor of a new magazine called Seventeen. They needed a photographer. Babs had recommended me very highly.

The model for my test-run cover atSeventeen was a girl named Jackie Mitchell, and the issue's theme was "Boy Meets Girl." We put Jackie and the boy who would be on the cover in bright yellow slickers; I put a sheet of glass in front of the camera and sprayed water on it, gave them an umbrella, and tilted the camera. It looked as if they were walking to the movies on a rainy day. Everyone at Seventeen liked the cover! Within a month I was given a contract.

I was finally launched--I wasworking for myself at last. I worked like a demon for Seventeen. I was sent all over the world to do shots in Machu Picchu, in Africa at the pyramids, in Australia--it was marvelous. I remember one trip to Africa I took with Rosemary McMurtry, Eleanore Hillebrand's successor as fashion editor. She got a telegram and came to me white-faced: "My God, they've changed the issue to 'See America First'! We're supposed to make this look like America!" All those beautiful blacks walking around in colorful turbans, and I was supposed to make it look like the Grand Canyon or Oshkosh, Wisconsin? I was learning about the magazine business.

It was about this time thatI started to use tungsten lights in the studio. I wasn't crazy about using them, but they helped when the natural light wasn't good, as on gray days. On days when the sky was steel gray, the light made the studio look like the inside of a well--I often wished I'd built the studio on the roof, not in the backyard.

Then, during one particularsitting, I discovered a solution. I was using a deck chair I had lacquered white, and I'd gotten a white umbrella from Uncle Sam (a company that manufactured them), which I clamped onto the back of the chair. The girl lay in the deck chair, covered by the umbrella. I experimented by putting the spotlight through the umbrella, and suddenly the girl looked marvelous! It was the most beautiful indoor lighting I'd found--as close to daylight as I could get without using the real thing. I began ordering a lot of white umbrellas from Uncle Sam, Inc.

I continued to innovate with my"umbrella effect" in lighting. I also used what I call barn doors: surrounding the model, top and sides, with pieces of cardboard, which allowed the light to pinpoint her face directly rather than hit her from above or from the sides. In this I was inspired by what Dietrich had done in her sitting with Horst. She used her hands to check if any light was leaking from the sides--light that would fill in and cover up the cheekbones that gave her face its extraordinary definition. My pictures became famous for their lighting in the 1950s and '60s.

The '60s were fantastic. I met AndyWarhol when he had his Factory on 47th Street. We went to parties there. Everything was silver--silver balloons, Mylar pillows, the ceilings were covered in Mylar--and Andy filmed everything that went on.

The 1970s and now the 1980s havemeant exciting new discoveries. Every moment of every decade I've lived through has brought me now discoveries, and whether I'm doing Bazaar or Vogue or Time, I find that I can enter whatever sensibility is required--I've learned to see things from widely different angles. I'm as excited by photography now as I was when I first saw Garbo on the screen.
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Author:Scavullo, Francesco
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:May 1, 1987
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