MICHAEL GROSS & TIM GUNN

MICHAEL GROSS & TIM GUNN

FADE IN:

INT. STALEY-WISE GALLERY, SOHO, NEW YORK CITY – LATE MORNING

Three floors above the bustling thoroughfare of Broadway, in downtown Manhattan, the Staley-Wise Gallery’s walls are decorated with photographs by Richard Avedon, whose work preceded, and in part lead to, the area’s transformation into a haven for the fashion set.

CUT TO:

MICHAEL GROSS, in a pink tie and matching shirt, and TIM GUNN, enter. The gentlemen take a moment to observe the images surrounding them, before settling into a pair of chairs in an adjacent room.

MICHAEL
Like many straight men, I was attracted to fashion as a subject by the faces of the industry: very pretty girls. I began my writing career in the rock ‘n’ roll world. Rockstars dated models; by writing about them I edged into fashion. When I decided to write my first book on [the industry], it was Richard Avedon who said, “write it about the models — nobody has done it.” After writing that book, Model [The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women], my wife would always ask about a sequel. “What’s the sequel?” I’d say. “Agents you’ve never heard of?” Then, one day, I realized it’s a follow-up: turn the camera around and there’s a completely different book.

TIM
The narrative of that book, Focus [The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers], is one of the aspects — if not the most profound one — that makes your writing so captivating. It’s electrifying. When I received the advance copy, I thought, “Eh, I know all about this.” But I really knew one percent of what you delivered. Just one percent! So I want to ask you, how are you so successful doing this deep digging? I’m in awe.

MICHAEL
Well, it’s obsessive focus [laughs]. That’s what it is. I look at everything that’s ever been written about my subjects. I collect. I gather paper. Then, I try to figure out where the missing bits are, and what’s obviously untrue.

TIM
Your keen analytical skills and abilities to diagnose and to prescribe are incredibly unusual.

MICHAEL
I become obsessed when there’s something I don’t understand. I have to figure it out and it drives me berserk. Early on [in writing on Focus], I was sitting here in the Staley-Wise Gallery with [co-owners] Etheleen [Staley] and Taki [Wise] — who know a lot about fashion photography — and asked two things. The first: who, in the present day, really matters? The second: who, among photographers past, has the best story? One of them said I had to do Bert Stern, because he was one of the three most important American fashion photographers in the 60s. “Bert Stern?” I thought. “Really?”

TIM
Well —

MICHAEL
I had no idea, because his [1962] photographs of Marilyn Monroe [for Vogue] overwhelmed his story. But the more I learned, the more I discovered. The man went through a five to seven year nervous breakdown, and [consequently], the narrative of his life was unclear. No one remembered. Even Bert himself, who I interviewed 20 years ago at great length! I had to piece it together by kicking over every rock, turning every page, making a thousand phone calls, and doing it all over again when I got tired. From 1962-73, Bert ruled fashion, along with Avedon and [Irving] Penn. But where the latter kept their wits about them and molded their legacies as great photographers, Stern was just holding on by the end, trying to live the life of a fashion photographer and continuing to boink as many young girls as he could.

TIM
Which, as the book notes, is another theme in this industry. But who knew? I certainly didn’t, and my education is a testament to your tenacity and insatiable curiosity.

MICHAEL
There’s a cliche question that people always ask me after I’ve written a book that makes me cringe.

TIM
Oh, what is it?

MICHAEL
“When you were writing the book, what surprised you the most?” Today, I’m turning the tables. As someone who knows so much about fashion, what surprised you the most?

TIM
Well, I know the work of the photographers in your book, but, with a couple of exceptions, I did not know their personal stories. I was so riveted by the people behind the images, and [their tales] helped me understand the source, or the root, of their creativity in many ways. Also, to read about the demons they battled was riveting. Just riveting.

MICHAEL
To discover that those demons were often what made these individuals, like Bert Stern, more than run of the mill fashion photographers was riveting to me, too. There are hundreds of run of the mill photographers —

TIM
As there are fashion designers! So it’s the passion that really informs the images, propels the photographer forward, and makes these great works.

MICHAEL
In every case.

TIM
In every case. For me, the heyday of fashion photography was a motivation to simply be a creative individual. Just look at the Avedon images hanging around us — the inspiration they provide is ceaseless. I feel as if I know these images and, at the same time, as though I’ve never seen them before. They’re so fresh. They’re so alive. They’re so profound. There’s a lesson for everyone in photos like these.

MICHAEL
They’re also the end product of alchemy, because you have the photographer, the editor, the model, the place, the frock, and the moment in time that all magically came together. I believe in magic.

TIM
I do too! You touched on another topic in the book: that a photographer really feels that he is the editor-in-chief, that he, in fact, supersedes the magazine. Do you think there’s a dimension of truth to that?

MICHAEL
If a photographer is really good, he can force his vision down the throat of editors and art directors, though the latter would likely disagree. That said, because they have to coddle to the photographers, they probably wouldn’t disagree openly.

TIM
But in all seriousness, what do you think is at the core of this bigger than life belief in oneself?

MICHAEL
Well, I think it’s over now.

TIM
Do you?

MICHAEL
Photographers are simply not as important as they used to be. As Jean Jacques Naudet [the former 18-year editor-in-chief of France’s PHOTO magazine] says, “In the 70s, they were kings. Now, you don’t even know their names.” I mean, can you possibly compare, on impact or creativity, Mario Testino to Irving Penn?

TIM
No —

MICHAEL
And Mario is as big as it gets!

TIM
He is. What I love about us is that we’re a couple of the only truth tellers left in this industry. I find it easy to tell the truth, because I remember it. That said, doing so gets me into a lot of trouble. While I haven’t done any jousting with photographers, I have with editors, and I will say that in the fashion industry at large there’s a lot of, well, denial. There’s a tendency towards history revisionism; to say this, or that, never happened. Well, yes, it did happen and we have documentation of it! That happens in huge doses and I wonder if you have any insight into why? I want to hear about your truth telling because mine gets me into trouble!

MICHAEL
I think that in order to maintain their sanity, fashion people can only look forward. They can’t look back.

TIM
Agreed.

MICHAEL
How could they? Then they’d have to admit this person did it first or that person got there already. There’s very little you can do anymore that’s new, but that in itself is an old idea. When I reinvented myself as a fashion writer, in the early 80s, I realized the only thing I actually didn’t want to write about was the dress. I wanted to write about who made it, who paid for it, who bought it, and where it was going.

TIM
Because you’re a truth teller who likes to open doors!

MICHAEL
Well, I ended up at the New York Times where, suddenly, I couldn’t write what I wanted. I could write a lot and wielded power — literally going from nowhere to the front row — but, professionally, I wanted something else. I was offered a job writing features at New York, where I no longer had to follow the “all the news that’s fit to print” rule, and it was there I began to write stories like the very first one to ever cock an eye at Calvin Klein and examine how his company really worked. I soon discovered I faced a choice: did I want to write for the people I was writing about? Ultimately, I decided no, it’s not about being a lap dog and continuing to be seated in the front row.

TIM
Well, you have your own integrity and seriousness of purpose.

MICHAEL
As a result, long before anyone cared about these things, I was banned from Versace, from Jean Paul Gaultier, from Christian Lacroix —

TIM
Congratulations [laughs]!

MICHAEL
And I wore those bans like badges of honor.

TIM
I’m with you.

MICHAEL
Within a matter of months after publishing Model — which I wrote to tell a story, one that happened to have a lot of dark aspects to it because the industry was a really dirty business — and leaving New York, I was written out of the fashion picture. Not long after that, when Gianni Versace was shot, I was asked to comment on it on television. Nobody knew what had happened, and all I could say was what people in fashion were saying: that many of them thought it was a mob hit. Afterward, one of Versace’s publicists went to the New York Post’s Page Six and said, “Who is Michael Gross? He doesn’t even get good seats at fashion shows!” The worst thing they could say about me was that I no longer got front row [laughs]!

TIM
Like you, one of the frequent responses to things I’ve written about or commented on is, “Aren’t you afraid you won’t be invited to parties anymore?” And my response is always the same: Yes [BOTH laugh]! Is that a promise or a threat [laughs]?

MICHAEL
Said with a gigantic smile! After Model, I didn’t write about fashion very much, if at all, for 20 years. My only connection to it during that time, aside from being married to a designer, was collecting fashion photographs. My desire to write Focus came from my love of them and my obsession with learning about the photographers who had the most hidden lives. The transgressions of people like Terry Richardson are already in your face, because he photographs them and publishes them.

TIM
There are no surprises.

MICHAEL
And that’s given him a good career. But, back in the day, people didn’t get to photograph their own orgasms.

TIM
But they do today in the age of the selfie [laughs]!

MICHAEL
And on that note, in order to try and connect the work covered in Focus to today, I’ve created the hashtag #FocusYourSelfie, which is meant to encourage people to make a picture that means something. Strike a pose for individuality, for yourself, for whatever matters — just make a picture with meaning. Take it into your own hands, like you’ve encouraged people to do through Project Runway.

TIM
We helped take the walls down with that show, and a lot of people didn’t like it. But anyone can make magic. I subscribe to equality, sincerity, authenticity, and being true to oneself, whatever that may mean. I know you do, too. There’s something out there for everyone, which speaks to the democratization of this entire industry’s culture, and I love that. And I just want to add: you are an inspiration here. You’ve done the staggeringly impressive job of opening up all these doors that had multiple locks and bolts on them, going into these dark areas, and finding gems — no, gold.

MICHAEL
Can you just pull that knife out of my back [laughs]?

TIM
I’ll stick it in mine. It’s so full of knives nobody will ever notice.

CREDITS

Photography byPJ Spaniol III

Conversation moderated byAnthony Rotunno

Special thanksStaley-Wise Gallery

Michael Gross is a journalist based in New York City. His latest book, Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers, is out now.
Tim Gunn, formerly the Fashion Design Department chair at Parsons The New School for Design, is a New York City-based author, fashion expert, and co-host of Project Ruway.

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THE END