FEW PHOTOGRAPHERS have skated as successfully as Steven Meisel has across a multitude of worlds, all in the name of fashion. Prolific scarcely scratches the surface. You could label him an auteur, in the cinematic interpretation of the word, because however different each shoot is from the next, there is a signature, a kind of completeness, which speaks to the obsessive perfectionism of his vision. No detail is too small. Every shot is meticulously planned in advance and logged in his bandanna-wrapped head.
And like many great auteurs, Meisel has made stars of the women who’ve performed for his lens. The supermodels who in the late ’80s began to dislodge Hollywood celebrities from their pop-cultural dominance were directed by Meisel: Linda, Christy, Naomi and all those who came after, among them the woman who has played perhaps the most perfect Trilby to his Svengali, Amber Valletta. “Working with him is like working with a director,” Valletta says. “He’s so clear about what he wants. Each time he describes a character, you know exactly what he’s looking for. There’s no guessing. And I think that kind of communication is a part of his genius.
Meisel, who turned 60 last year, was born in Manhattan and grew up on Long Island. After attending Parsons, he became a fashion illustrator for Women’s Wear Daily before being tapped by Elite models for test shoots—and then, soon after, by Vogue to photograph the collections. Since then he has produced hundreds of magazine editorials (including every Vogue Italia cover since 1988) and countless ad campaigns. The astonishing range of his output—from over-the-top couture glamour to sharp social satire—betrays a chameleon-like imagination. “He was the first person,” Madonna once told Vogue, “to introduce me to the idea of reinvention.”
Although Meisel himself has always been a closed book, rarely granting interviews, he acknowledges that every shoot is ultimately a part of his own story. Valletta, for instance, bears an uncanny resemblance to his mother, a former band singer with Sammy Kaye, now living in Palm Springs, California—and clearly an enduring inspiration. “Interesting, he’s always shot me in a wholesome way, even when the shoot is crazy,” Valletta muses about a collaboration that has seen her enact a vast array of characters, from Anna May Wong to Grey Gardens’ “Little” Edie Beale.
Meisel has recently revisited his past—at least as reflected in his work—as he compiled an overview of his photographs to be offered by Phillips (in the selling exhibition, Role Play,launched in Paris and is currently on view in New York City). The familiarity of the images is startling: They’re fundamental to the fashion lexicon of the past three decades. Given the assumed ephemerality of his subject matter, the timelessness of the pictures is equally remarkable. “He will always be able to find newness in something, as if it was always there, so his work doesn’t date,” says J.W. Anderson, the young British designer who has recently worked with Meisel on campaigns for the Spanish fashion house Loewe. “It’s like it was meant to be.”
Meisel’s surrender to that destiny is absolute—a blessing for fashion, because with every click of his shutter, the universe expands. As Donatella Versace says, “With each image, he creates a complete world, one that is at the same time total fantasy and also absolutely true.”
Tim Blanks: Your selection of images for the Phillips show seems to be a concise career overview. Is that how you saw it?
Steven Meisel: It wasn’t just my decision. I would have pushed it further, to be honest. They had first given me a selection, then we went back and forth. It was a compromise.