Groundbreaking Fashion Photographer Melvin Sokolsky Has Died
His spellbinding images for Bazaar in the 1960s—including his indelible “bubble” series—ushered in a new age for the magazine and for fashion
By Stephen Mooallem
Published: Sep 10, 2022
Melvin Sokolsky, a photographer whose fantastical and occasionally surreal work brought an experimental energy to Harper’s Bazaar and fashion imagery in the 1960s, died on August 29 in Beverly Hills, California. He was 88 years old.
Sokolsky’s death was announced on Instagram by David Fahey, the co-founder of his gallery, Fahey/Klein, in Los Angeles. A cause was not given.
In an era of cultural upheaval, Sokolsky sought to unmoor fashion photography from its more classicist—and classist—roots. His stories were ambitious, otherworldly, and often technically and logistically complex to pull off, all in the days before digital technology would simplify the process of taking and manipulating images.
Perhaps the most famous of them was his March 1963 “bubble” series for Bazaar, which featured model Simone D’Aillencourt floating in a space-age-y translucent orb that begins its journey in New York before settling above the Seine in Paris. The session would become Sokolsky’s calling card at a moment when a range of youth subcultures and social movements were challenging the old-society swirl and European perspectives that had long dominated high fashion. Bazaar itself was also in a period of transition, as many of the legendary creative forces of the magazine's vaunted postwar golden age—editor in chief Carmel Snow; fashion editor Diana Vreeland; art director Alexey Brodovitch; and soon photographer Richard Avedon—had retired or were in the process of departing.
Born in New York in 1933 and raised on the Lower East Side, Sokolsky was self-taught and trained as a photographer. He was always interested in art as a kid and experimented with his father's camera. But from a young age, Sokolsky was driven by the notion that he would need to work to help support his family after his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while Sokolsky was still in high school.
Sokolsky's big break would come in 1959, when Brodovitch’s successor at Bazaar, Henry Wolf, spotted an ad in the magazine that Sokolsky had shot. Wolf called Sokolsky and offered him an assignment, which would include an attempt at a cover image. Sokolsky was nervous, but Vreeland’s assistant at the time, Ali MacGraw—who, after appearing in Love Story (1970) and with her future husband Steve McQueen in The Getaway (1972), would go on to become one of the biggest movie stars of the 1970s—alerted him to a hat that Vreeland loved, which he made sure to shoot. Sokolsky didn’t get the cover, but he soon became a regular contributor to Bazaar.
Nevertheless, the bubble series came at an inauspicious time for both Sokolsky and the magazine. Wolf had left in 1961, with Vreeland decamping the following year for Vogue, where she would soon be named editor in chief. In December 1962, Sokolsky was asked to shoot a story on the Paris collections, but Wolf’s replacement, Marvin Israel, and Bazaar’s editor in chief, Nancy White, both had reservations about the concept he had proposed: he wanted to photograph a model in a giant bubble hovering above the city.
Sokolsky, though, was set on the idea, inspired in part by the Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s 15th-century triptych The Garden of Earthly Delights, which depicted the story of creation and included tiny figures and animals in floating transparent bubble-like spheres. Sokolsky remembered being fascinated by that painting as a teenager, imagining himself inside one of them, effervescently making his way around the city. He also recalled seeing a department store window display where the shoes and handbags were arranged in clear, round plastic containers.
When White and Israel blanched at the feasibility of the project, Sokolsky agreed to do some test shots. He had two giant Plexiglass hemispheres fabricated and connected them with a metal ring that spanned the circumference of the bubble and was attached to a thin steel cable. He set up camp in Weehawken, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, and rented a crane, which he then used to hoist the bubble into the air with D’Aillencourt inside, photographing her against the backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
In late January 1963, Sokolsky set off for Paris with D’Aillencourt and MacGraw, who had left Bazaar to work for him in the hybrid role of assistant, producer, and fixer, along for the ride. “Melvin asked me if I could dredge up my high-school French in order to interface with the Paris police for permission day and night to set up our crane,” MacGraw recalled of the shoot last year. “They were very amused and allowed us to shoot almost anywhere.”
The images of an elegantly dressed D’Aillencourt suspended in midair in a plastic bubble felt eerily futuristic—and entirely different from the established vernacular of fashion photography at the time. The women in his pictures weren't ethereal creatures who populated salons, lush gardens, and environments that immediately read as privileged. They were individuals with agency, trying to navigate a changing world. As he later recounted, the character D’Aillencourt embodied in the bubble series wasn’t, in his mind, trapped in the device but in command of it. “I secretly saw it as a Sokolsky aircraft that could fly anywhere on an engine built into of the ring,” he said in 2019. “It was not a girl captured in a bubble. It was a woman at the helm of her spaceship.”
Sokolsky’s bubble series became the first blockbuster fashion story for Bazaar in the post-Vreeland period. It also marked the beginning of a prolific creative run for Sokolsky, an inveterate storyteller whose images evoked multidimensional characters and fable-esque narratives but were often set in realistic—and in some cases, hyper-real—environments.
For a shoot that appeared in the November 1963 issue, Sokolsky once again looked to art for inspiration. Drawing upon the surreal scale in René Magritte’s 1952 painting Personal Values, which depicted the contents of a bedroom—a glass, a comb, a matchstick, and a brush—rendered enormous and propped up on the furnishings, he shot a feature that involved models climbing and leaping off a gargantuan chairs and other furniture. “My mother’s old kitchen chair was stored in the studio prop room—a simple kitchen chair that I grew up sitting on,” he told Bazaar in 2021. “I asked the carpenter to scale it up to 10 feet.”
In early 1965, Sokolsky returned to Paris for another story, this one with model Dorothy McGowan, who appeared to be flying (sans bubble) around the city; McGowan was, in fact, suspended by a corset-harness contraption that Sokolsky once again devised himself. “Watching Dorothy dangle five stories above the street from a thin cable anchored to a steeply angled roof was unsettling,” Sokolsky said. “To this day, I can picture her flying above the city, bouncing at the end of the cable, actually enjoying the experience.”
By the early 1970s, Sokolsky had moved to Los Angeles to pursue a career in film. He began working as a commercial director and cinematographer, which would become his primary focus over the next several decades. But a resurgence of interest in his photography in the late 1990s prompted a return to creating still imagery, which he continued to experiment with and push the boundaries of in recent years. For Bazaar’s December 2014/January 2015 issue, he even revived the bubble for a cover story on Jennifer Aniston.
Sokolsky saw appreciation for his work ebb and evolve, but he remained enthralled with it all. Last year, he pointed to a color outtake from the big-chair story, which ran entirely in black and white. In the image, the model Iris Bianchi is seen leaning off the giant chair in a red print coat, as if she's about to either tumble forward or leap out of her seat. That outtake, Sokolsky said—more than any of the pictures that actually appeared in the magazine—was the one galleries and museums always requested for exhibitions. “The art department thought the image was so weird,” he told Bazaar. “At the time most choices for publication were upper-class gestures by the models," he said. "But times and tastes have changed. The out becomes the choice, setting a new standard.”
Sokolsky is survived by his son, Bing Sokolsky, and daughter-in-law, Yuki Sokolsky. He was predeceased by his wife and longtime collaborator, Button Sokolsky.