Francesco Scavullo

Celebrity fashion photographer

Tuesday 13 January 2004 01:00

Francesco Scavullo, portraitist and fashion photographer: born New York 16 January 1921; married 1952 Carol McCallson (marriage dissolved 1955); died New York 6 January 2004.

One evening in 1933, Francesco Scavullo went to a New York cinema to see Greta Garbo in the film Queen Christina. Many years later, he remembered Garbo's impact:

The camera almost choked me with this close-up of a woman called Garbo! Magic it was for me. Images. Fantasy. Sure, it was total escape into a world of imagination.

As the son of a wealthy casino owner and restaurateur Scavullo grew up immersed in a world of appearances. He was intrigued by the rituals of dressing up and making up that he observed at home:

I was fascinated when my mother got done up. My mother made the transformation from Cinderella every day of her life.

Like that other great illusionist Cecil Beaton, he experimented with photography by making portraits of his sisters, transforming them, through hair, make-up and costume, into the glamorous stars he saw at the movies:

I definitely wanted to make everyone look like a movie star. I was always looking at my mother's fashion magazines. What I saw were the beautiful women.

Throughout his career as a photographer, Scavullo clung tenaciously to his belief in beauty and glamour. He learned the craft of fashion photography by working at a catalogue studio, but soon moved on to become an assistant at Vogue magazine working with such star fashion photographers as Horst P. Horst, Beaton and John Rawlings. Scavullo studied Horst's photographic methods intently. He learned that he could make beautiful women sublime by filtering light through white muslin cloth or by bouncing it off a white umbrella, techniques which would iron out imperfections and make skin luminous. Years later, one of his former assistants, James Ruggiero, acknowledged the impact Scavullo's photography had on his own practice:

Working alongside a master photographer such as Francesco enabled me to learn angles, lighting and how to make a model or actor feel comfortable in front of the lens.

But the Vogue studios were already full of star photographers on long-term contracts, and Scavullo was determined to reach the top of his profession. In 1948, he made a cover picture for Seventeen magazine. The editor was so impressed that she gave him a contract, and Scavullo opened his own studio in Manhattan.

Photography and photographers were becoming ever more important in New York's cultural scene - the work of Robert Frank, Richard Avedon and Louise Dahl Wolfe was noticed not only by the magazines they worked for, but also by the rapidly emerging gallery and museum photo departments. Scavullo entered the photographic fray with vision, determination and energy.

His big break came with a revamp of Cosmopolitan magazine in the mid-Sixties. Its editor, Helen Gurley Brown, was determined that Cosmo should set the pace in an era in which women were acquiring new opportunities, improved status and hitherto unimaginable sexual freedoms. Cosmo was to be the magazine for the new woman. If American Vogue was for ladies, Cosmo was for working girls, and its combination of fashion, forthright editorial and glamour features was a winning formula. Scavullo's photographs, with their combination of elegance and energy, suited it exactly.

For 30 years, Scavullo was Cosmo's cover photographer. He anticipated the return to glitz which would dominate fashion photography in the 1980s; Scavullo's favourite models were bold, high-spirited young women who were part of America's new consumerist, television culture and were epitomised by Farrah Fawcett, who later gained global fame as one of "Charlie's Angels". Scavullo brought a new voluptuousness into fashion photography, celebrating the sexuality of women's bodies and the strength of their desires. "Everyone knew the Cosmo girl," he recollected, "and everyone wanted to be the Cosmo girl."

In the late Seventies and early Eighties, he made many remarkable photographs of Gia Carangi, a tough Philadelphia teenager who became one of the world's first supermodels. So great was Scavullo's control of the medium that in November 1980 he photographed her for a Vogue fashion spread, "The Start of Something Pretty", when her heroin addiction had made her virtually unemployable. Scavullo supported Carangi until her untimely death from Aids in the mid-Eighties.

Scavullo himself was no stranger to sickness. In 1981, he was diagnosed as manic depressive, after suffering a number of nervous breakdowns. Though he acknowledged that the "highs" contributed to his creative energy, he was well aware of the pain of mental illness. His openness about his illness brought praise and awards from charities such as Community Access. "It's important," he said, "that people know about this disease and that they can get treatment for it".

Supremely successful as a fashion photographer, Scavullo was also in great demand as a portraitist. Over his long career he photographed thousands of actors, musicians, writers, artists and designers. His subjects included Calvin Klein and Grace Kelly, Gore Vidal, Elizabeth Taylor, Janis Joplin, Kim Basinger, Diana Ross, Brad Pitt, Mick Jagger and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He photographed Andy Warhol and his Superstars (Holly Woodlawn, Jackie Curtis, Candy Darling) many times, and, as new stars moved into the celebrity firmament, he photographed David Bowie, Debbie Harry and Madonna.

He made photographs for Broadway shows, posing Julie Andrews as a dinner-jacketed dandy as she launched Victor Victoria, and made advertising campaigns for Valentino, Saint Laurent and Lagerfeld. New York's grandest department stores, including Saks Fifth Avenue and Bloomingdales, came to him for their glossy catalogues. He photographed Burt Reynolds in the nude for Cosmo and caused consternation when he made child models such as Brooke Shields into icons of sexuality.

Scavullo's was a talent which did not diminish with age. Supported by the stylist Sean Byrnes, his long-term partner, Scavullo was producing photographs until the end. When the editor Michael Matson greeted Scavullo at the beginning of a fashion shoot in 2002, he had misgivings:

Mr Scavullo arrived a little under the weather and was moving at an unusually slow pace. Although I knew he was in his eighties, I must admit that I had some fear about what might take place. Was he past his prime? I wondered. I had to keep my thoughts from going to the bad place: Scavullo is not up to the task and how am I going to explain this dismal shoot to my editor-in-chief? My fears were alleviated the moment he stepped up to the camera. The man seemed to drop 50 years in age and had all the enthusiasm and agility of a young artist. You could feel the magic in the air. It was truly electric.

Almost every star in the celebrity firmament came in front of Scavullo's camera. Sometimes, they paid him for the privilege, as word got around that Scavullo's camera, and his team of stylists, hairdressers and make-up artists, could perform miraculous makeovers. In the end, he was probably as famous as the people he photographed. He made plain people look beautiful, and beautiful people magnificent.

"I'm impressed by glamour," he told an interviewer. "I'm impressed by beauty. I'm impressed by charming people. I'm impressed! I'm impressed!"

Val Williams

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