Arthur Elgot: Turning Point

Condé Nast Archive

The Decisive Moment, 1976. By Ivan Shaw

A True New Yorker
It’s not surprising that Arthur Elgort is a huge fan of jazz. Many consider jazz America’s only original art form, and Elgort is truly an American artist. In fact, he is not only truly American but truly a New Yorker. Born in New York City in 1940 and raised in the Washington Heights section, he has lived for 40 years in the Eldorado on Central Park West; his studio for the last 30 years has been six stories above the heart of Soho, on Grand just east of Broadway.
"The Decisive Moment"
Elgort didn’t start out as a photographer. He originally went to Hunter College to study painting, but found that the solace many painters take in isolation did not suit him, so he picked up a camera and began to take pictures of his friends. The spark was lit, and Elgort soon secured a position assisting fashion photographer Gösta Peterson. Peterson was part of the first wave of late-1960s photographers who were moving toward a looser, less contrived approach to fashion. Elgort quickly adopted this aesthetic and began to develop it into something more. What he had was the natural ability to not only capture the “decisive moment” but to simultaneously connect with his models on a deeply emotional level as well. As he captured the beauty in the moment, he saw beneath the surface: Sometimes what he found was darker, sometimes sadder, but he always revealed who the models really were, not just pretty faces in motion. This intuition would drive his distinctive style of fashion photography for the next 40 years and help define the notion of the modern woman in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Elgort and US Vogue
Although Elgort first began shooting for British VOGUE, Mademoiselle, and Glamour, his relationship with US VOGUE, starting in 1974, would prove pivotal to his career and to the trajectory of the magazine itself. In many ways, Elgort crafted the aesthetic of VOGUE during this period.
Elgort's Iconic 1976 Images
Of the many images that defined the Elgort/VOGUE ’70s–’80s era, two in particular have become icons of fashion photography. The year was 1976. America was celebrating its bicentennial and Arthur Elgort was busy at work, seeking new ways to depict the modern woman. Elgort’s partner in this endeavor was the now legendary fashion stylist Polly Mellen. Arguably the most influential sittings editor of the era, Mellen was known not only for her work with Elgort but also with photographic legends Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, and Helmut Newton.

An Evolving Definition of Femininity

For the January issue, Elgort and Mellen took model Patti Hansen to The Breakers in Palm Beach, Florida, for a summer dressing story that included a swimsuit feature. The image chosen for the story features Hansen in a classic white maillot leaning against a lawn chair, a visual that speaks to the era’s evolving definition of femininity. Hansen’s gaze and pose are powerful and assertive—she seems to have shed the idea of being the passive object of the photographer’s gaze. Hansen is known to be an intelligent woman with a strong sense of self; Elgort sensed this and, with the speed of his “decisive moment” reflexes, captured it. Mellen, who remembers this shoot fondly, considers Elgort a “specialist” with the ability to find moments that “have never been captured by anyone else.”

A new moment for a new kind of woman

Later that year, for the October issue, Elgort stayed closer to home but sped things up a bit. For a story focused on the modern notion of beauty, “The Naturally Brights,” Elgort, along with Mellen, decided to photograph model Lisa Taylor driving across the George Washington Bridge in a convertible Mercedes-Benz. When Elgort first showed the image to Conde Nast editorial director Alexander Liberman, Liberman was ecstatic, declaring it an “extraordinary breakaway from traditional beauty photographs.” Mellen remembers the shoot fondly: She felt that it captured “a new moment for a new kind of woman.”

With these and many more images taken during this pivotal year, Elgort helped VOGUE to create a new visual conversation, helping to shape the time that he lived and worked in.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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