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Arthur Elgort: The Big Picture

elgortThe photographs are, of course, iconic. As in, I remember exactly where I was when I opened that September 1991 issue of Vogue to flip to the page of Linda Evangelista kicking that bagpiper (plaids are hot for fall, ladies!). But Arthur Elgort’s The Big Picture (Amazon, Powell’s) is about more than pretty fashion models.

Oh, there’s plenty of them there, dating back to his first shoot for British Vogue in 1971, and there’s a sub-theme in The Big Picture that is really the history of haute couture from the 70s forward, as the photographer worked with not just Vogue but Interview, GQ, Life and Rolling Stone, and shot advertising campaigns for Chanel, Valentino and Yves Saint Laurent.

Elgort, born in 1940 and a New York City native, got his start as a painter but switched to photography, taking photos of ballerinas before moving to fashion. He is known for his snapshot style of photography as well as for taking fashion photography to the street at a time when most work was done in a studio. Working closely with Vogue creative director Grace Coddington over the years, Elgort took fashion beyond the city and into the desert and the jungle, and even atop the occasional elephant.

But while Elgort’s fashion spreads for various magazines, and particularly Vogue, are definitely beautiful, I find much more expression and interest in his black and white work. This includes snapshots of models, his wife and children, various celebrities, the ballerinas he adored and the occasional landscape, field of cows or kids on a raft in the middle of a lake.

The shot of an old lady clad in a fur coat, sitting on a stoop is as, or more, expressive than any picture of Christy Turlington. Elgort sees beauty and spirit in every thing. One of my favourite shots is titled “Waitresses at Wentworth Hall – My First Picture” and is dated 1955 Jackson, New Hampshire and shows two young women clad in white uniforms, smiling for the camera, squinting slightly in the sunshine.

Mixed in with the photos are various quotes from Elgort and this one really summarizes the whole book:

“The amazing thing about photography is that if no one is ready, the makeup artist is taking too long or the hair stylist is being fussy, you can go take a picture of something or someone else. Some of my best pictures were taken when I wasn’t ‘working’ – models getting ready, people on the street, the little moments in between shots. That’s when you can really capture people as they truly are and see what’s underneath. It’s those real moments that just can’t be faked.”

There’s no doubt that Elgort’s fashion work is outstanding, gorgeous and memorable, but I think his more important work is everything else in this collection; the life that goes on beyond the window of the fashion shoot and overflows into real life.

Sheryl Kirby

is a writer, editor and event organizer living in Toronto, Canada. Her writing about food has been featured in a number of publications. She is the author of Kitchen Party – Food Stories From Nova Scotia and Beyond and the editor of Beer and Butter Tarts – A Canadian Literary Food Journal.

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