COVERING THE PARIS COLLECTIONS
During four consecutive summers — from 1962 through 1965 — my job as studio manager of the famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon took me on delicious assignments to the City of Light. Here's the little world we lived and worked in throughout those wonderful times, and some of my fondest memories of it.
Avedon photographed the Fall Paris Couture Collections for Harper's Bazaar magazine every year from 1947 through 1965, and for Vogue magazine from 1966 until 1984. There are few photos on this posting because a) I don't have them and b) they are copyrighted anyway.
This is where it all happened. Between the Champs-Élysées and the Seine River runs the Rue Jean-Goujon, the center of our activities each July through mid-August. Number 1 was the old Harper's Bazaar studio, and number 2 the new. Number 3 was the delightful Hôtel San-Regis, and number 4 was the Hôtel Alma-Marceau where I spent my last days during that fateful summer of 1965.
It began on Bastille Day, July 14th 1962, as I arrived at Orly Airport on my very first trip to France. Click here to read about that fun-filled first week before the actual work began.
Little had changed at the old Harper's Bazaar Studio on Rue Jean-Goujon since the 1930s, or even earlier. By 1962 standards it was exceedingly primitive, with old-fashioned tungsten lights and a nightmare of a darkroom. Fortunately, we had anticipated this and shipped most everything needed by air freight a few weeks in advance, including film, chemicals, and printing paper. The rest I was able to round up from local suppliers. What we did not anticipate was the rear door to the darkroom, which led into the freight elevator. As I was making the first test run of our film processing that door was suddenly opened by the wine delivery man, who was bringing cases of vin ordinaire to keep us happy.
We were all housed at the Hôtel San-Regis, a charming Old World place where the ancient open-cage elevator descended right into the middle of the lobby. Every room was furnished with antiques, there was a good restaurant, and the service was unusually attentive. No wonder the Harper's Bazaar crowd always made it their Paris home.
The hotel always sent breakfast to our rooms, but for lunch and dinner we went to local cafés and restaurants. My favorites were on the nearby Rue Marbeuf, especially Chez André, which I believe is still there. After the 1964 move to the new studio the magazine hired a cook to make most of our meals right on the spot. This had the advantage of being a free lunch, and the disadvantage of having to face an awful lot of Lapin, or rabbit. At one point we had a wine strike, refusing to drink the swill served until they got something better. This they did.
Each year we hired young trainee-assistants from various European countries. Those who performed exceptionally well were offered jobs at Avedon's New York studio. Among those who got this offer, and then came to America, were guys from Ireland, Sweden, Germany, and Israel. Training them was part of my job, along with making sure that everything was done correctly and on time. They all spoke English, so that was not a problem.
Now, I never had the slightest interest in fashion, and still don't. But I had a burning passion for photography in all its aspects, from studio lighting to darkroom printing. Twice during those four years, however, I was recruited to fill a seat at fashion showings when one of the magazine editors couldn't make it. The first of these was at Dior on the Avenue Montaigne, practically next door to the studio. I tried valiantly to remain attentive, and was happy when it was over and we went to a great café in the same block.
The other time was at Chanel, when I was given a surprise honor. The salon, at 31 Rue Cambon near Place Vendome, in which the showings were held, had a grand open staircase near the top of which Coco Chanel herself sat, observing the audience. She always invited someone in the crowd to sit with her, and this time it was me! I still wonder whether this was a deliberate snub at Dick, who had previously published a quite unflattering photo of her calling attention to her wartime collaboration with Nazi spies. She was never tried for this crime owing to intervention by the British Royal Family, who were fans of her couture designs.
The 1962 sessions were the most interesting and fun to work on. Some of these depicted scenes in a fictitious story of two celebrities dashing around Paris while escaping the pursuing paparazzi, photographed in a journalistic style. To play the lead parts Avedon brought along two of his friends, model (and later movie star) Suzy Parker, and stage-and-film-director Mike Nichols. Suzy wore the fashions while Mike was her adoring companion. To get a more authentic look, Avedon used a 35mm SLR camera with a long telephoto lens, along with his usual Rolleiflex TLR. I had to rent some of the lenses from a Paris camera store as he rarely worked in 35mm. For a climactic scene in Maxim's restaurant he wanted one of the "reporters" to have an old-fashioned Speed Graphic camera, which I couldn't find locally — so I called our New York supplier and had a used one shipped over the next day.
In 1964 he decided on an entirely different approach, using only an 8x10 Deardorff view camera in a rented ballroom that was later transformed into Harper's Bazaar's new Paris office and studio. We were still using the old darkrooms, which lacked an enlarger that could handle the 8x10 negatives. To solve this problem, we rented a professional color lab on the Rue des Martyrs in Montmartre — which was closed at that time for vacation. I made all of the "finish" prints there myself during the days, while the shooting was all done at night.
Photography of the Collections always had to be done at night as the fashions were one-of-a-kind creations, not yet in production, and were needed during the day for showings in the salons for the press and prospective buyers. This meant that we got very little sleep during the peak two weeks.
Towards the end of the 1964 session Marianne, the head of the Paris office, asked me to design a darkroom and production complex above their new studio. For this I engaged the help of Dick Balli, whose Balcar company manufactured and distributed the most advanced equipment available in Europe at that time.
The design I came up with is shown above in an article I wrote for Photographic Product News in 1965. CLICK HERE for more about this, scrolling down to the bottom of the page.
By the end of 1964 the new darkroom facilities were finished and equipped with as-yet-untested state-of-the-art gear. Since I was in London in January 1965 helping Avedon photograph members of a new rock group called the "Beatles", I hopped over to Paris to give the new facilities a test run. Little did I know that they were already in use by another fashion photographer who was covering the Spring Collections. When I walked into the print room he cursed me because nothing worked properly. Of course it didn't — I hadn't made the adjustments yet and he wasn't supposed to be using it.
Later that year, in July 1965, we began work on what was to be Avedon's last Collection for Harper's Bazaar; by the next year he was working for rival Vogue magazine. The new studio and darkrooms were functioning smoothly, and this time the whole business of preparing the issue for the printer was done right there in the studio instead of weeks later back in New York. This put an extra large burden on the crew, made up of one Frenchman, one Italian, and two Swedes, plus myself. Overseeing everything meant long, long hours and precious little sleep. A few days before the end I collapsed and was put under a doctor's care, then made the fateful decision to leave and start my own studio. Read all about this by CLICKING HERE and HERE.
Photography's Golden Age ended long ago but remains very much alive in my memory. From 1952 through 1965 I assisted Avedon during his most creative period, and do I ever have the stories to tell! Now, at the end of 2015, is the time to reveal all, while I'm still alive and kicking. Tales of personalities, motivations, intrigues, and even the fine details of how it was all done.
What I need to make this a reality is a co-conspirator to aid in getting the whole, true, uncensored story published -- either as a book, an e-book, or even a documentary.
Anyone interested? Leave a comment and I'll get back to you.