“From the moment each of my children were born, they have been my favorite thing to photograph,” Arthur Elgort, the legendary fashion photographer, writes at the end of his new book, Arthur Elgort: The Big Picture. “Even now that they are all grown up and starting to move away from home, I still take pictures of each one every chance I get.” It’s true: The retrospective tome — the most comprehensive collection of Elgort’s work to date — includes his most iconic fashion photography from the past five decades alongside photographs of dancers, musicians, and his children: Sophie, Warren, and Ansel. His Soho studio is filled with photographs of them. There's a nearly life-size blow-up of his 2000 Mad Max–inspired editorial for Vogue (which features his two sons in the desert with Carmen Kass), and on his coffee table sits a copy of GQ's "Man of the Year" issue, with Ansel on the cover.
“Yes, he’s doing well,” Arthur says, nodding at the magazine proudly. “And he didn’t want to go to college. He said, 'I don’t need to go to college, because I’m going to be a famous actor.' And I said, 'You know that already?'” He laughs. Asked what it’s like to see his son on the cover of magazines (Ansel also graces the cover of this month's Town and Country, shot by Arthur), he responds matter-of-factly: “Funny, but I expected it … he’s very good because he’s not afraid of cameras. He was brought up with cameras. He just did the Prada campaign, so he’s working pretty good. He pays his own rent and everything.”
The Cut spoke with the elder Elgort about his early travails as a painter, why Grace Coddington didn’t like him at first, and why Christy Turlington is his favorite model.
You studied painting in college. What prompted you to make the shift to photography?
Yes, I did painting, but I felt lonely, because I was always alone, painting. And I was good, but not that good. I didn’t think I was a Rothko, or something like that. I had a good time doing it, but my nails were dirty all the time. Really filthy. I used to work as a waiter to make money, and I could never get the paint off. I started taking pictures — Polaroids — of my paintings, and that’s how I began. It was almost all girls at my school, so I used them as my models. And then I slowly showed that to people, and they said, "Maybe you should be a photographer instead." And I said, "That’s a good idea."
And then, before I knew it, someone took my pictures around for me — because I was afraid to do it myself — and they took them to Mademoiselle magazine. That no longer exists — it should, because it’s better than Glamour. So I started working for Mademoiselle magazine, and then I moved to Europe and did British Vogue, and Italian Vogue, and French Vogue. And then Alexander Liberman — the art director, the boss of all of it — called me up, and said, "Why don’t you come work for American Vogue, because you’re doing too many good pictures for Mademoiselle, and it’s looking bad for you." I said, "Fine by me!"
Before you worked in fashion, you photographed dancers, right? How did you get into that?
Well, I knew a lot of dancers. One of my girlfriends was a dancer, so I would go and sit in the doorway and practice with the dancers. I loved that, but I realized I wouldn’t make any money. So I said, what’s the closest thing to that? Fashion. So I got into fashion, and I’m still doing fashion. But I still do dancers, too. My next book will be just about dance.
What’s the difference between photographing models and dancers?
[It's the] same. Just, models make more money. And the dancers, I mean, their feet hurt more.
In the book, you mention that when you first met Grace Coddington, she didn’t really like you. Why not?
I was very New York–y, and she was very Wales. She was a model, and I felt like I talked funny, you know, for her. I would say it took a few jobs to get her interested, but then we got along. We liked the same kinds of things. She’s always thinking. She’s as old as me, but we still work.
You also say that Christy Turlington is your favorite model.
More or less, yes.
Well, first of all, she flies well. If you take her somewhere, she doesn’t give you any trouble. You know why? Her mother was a stewardess, and her father was a pilot, so she’s used to flying. And then once she gets there, she’s ready to work. And she looks beautiful. If you see her today, she still looks the same.
What was it like having your children on fashion shoots?
They were very good, very natural. And I worked with them all the time. Now that they've moved away, I have to use my wife. But she’s good, too.
Did photographing your kids change at all as they got older?
No. They always loved it, because I was very fast. I didn’t waste time. I took maybe three snaps, and I was finished.
Do you think your aesthetic has changed over the course of your career?
No, not at all. Now there are different models, but if you look at the book, you can’t tell what’s '90s or '70s or '80s. I don’t think I’ve changed that much. And it’s not just fashion. That’s what I like about this book. I still take pictures when I go on the street, of just anybody I see. When I’m really bored, I take pictures of myself.
How often do you do that?
I would say once a week. But now I seem to get older — it’s not the same.