Sophia Loren, Barbra Streisand, Elizabeth Taylor, Grace Kelly, Liza Minnelli, Cher, Michelle Pfeiffer, Margaux Hemingway, Paulina Porizkova, Catherine Deneuve, Cindy Crawford, Madonna. Some say that there was not a single star in the latter half of the 20th century who wasn’t photographed by Francesco Scavullo. For more than six decades, the legendary fashion and celebrity photographer reigned as one of America’s greatest image-makers. Many of his most enduring pictures will be offered in a series of auctions at Sotheby’s beginning this autumn.
Born on Staten Island in 1921, Scavullo discovered his passion for the camera at an early age. When he was ten, he began photographing his sisters, recreating looks he saw in the movies and fashion magazines he loved. At sixteen, he became the assistant to the legendary fashion photographer Horst P. Horst, and at nineteen, he shot his first cover for Seventeen magazine.
In 1965, Scavullo received a career-changing phone call from Helen Gurley Brown, the newly appointed editor in chief of Cosmopolitan magazine. Brown believed that modern women could have it all, and she wanted Scavullo to help define her new vision of femininity: the Cosmo Girl. She was strong, self-possessed and terrifically sensual. “Everybody knew the Cosmo Girl, and everybody wanted to be the Cosmo Girl,” said Scavullo, who, in collaboration with his stylist and life partner, Sean Byrnes, defined her look for three decades.
The photographer knew instinctively that beauty wasn’t just something you were born with. It was something to create, to reveal and to capture. Industry insiders described his talent for lighting and styling as “Scavullo-ising.” Gloria Vanderbilt claimed that he had “unerring perception.” But Scavullo had a simpler explanation for how he brought out the best in the people he photographed. “If you make them feel that they’re sensational, they’ll look sensational,” he said in an interview.
And he didn’t just create glamour, he lived it, perhaps nowhere more than in the chic circles at New York’s Studio 54. “Fashion is always reflecting what’s going on in the world, and there was a lot going on at 54,” Scavullo said of the nightclub where he and Byrnes partied alongside the superstars he photographed.
He also discovered new talent, launching the careers of Farrah Fawcett, Brooke Shields, Christie Brinkley and Gia Carangi, considered by many to be the first supermodel. “She was marvellous,” Scavullo once said. “It was like working with a wild young horse.”
Scavullo remained a vital force in fashion and photography until his death, in 2004, and he never stopped creating his signature images of beauty and glamour. “I get a kick out of photography,” he once said of his art. “I love it. I live for it. I don’t look back. I don’t look ahead. I just look around.”
Jennifer Krasinski writes about art and performance for Artforum.com, The Village Voice and other publications.
Photographs by Francesco Scavullo will be offered by Sotheby’s in a series of auctions starting this autumn.
Enquiries: +1 212 894 1212. sothebys.com.