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Society, Photographed

The society photographers that shaped our culture

Documenting life and society has always been a key driver for photographers and photography at large. From Henri-Cartier Bresson’s candids and Vivian Maier’s street photography straight through to James Nachtwey’s war time pictures – the medium provides us with an exceptionally rare window of insight into our past and present.  

Viewing life through a curated lens allows us to see our reality differently, beautifully and richly. It can serve as an escape, a way for us to delve into new worlds, get lost in the poetry of an image and vicariously embrace a captured moment. 

Photography is never limited to reportage but rather fulfils the entire gamut of human experience, from the scientific to the sublimely irreverent. In the later we find the photography of entertainment and the chronicling of the lives of high society, filled with holidays, balls, private enclaves, red carpets and leisurely pursuits.  

So impactful is this subgenera of ‘society photography’, that it is arguably the inspiration behind the world’s now ubiquitous digital social photography. Nevertheless, it cannot be discounted for artistic merit; many of the great photographic artists of our time have centred around capturing rarified environments – giving us a glimpse into the gilded worlds of the upper strata. 

We take a look at some of the most impactful society photographers of the 20th century; 

Johnny Pigozzi

Jean Pigozzi driving a Simca
Jean Pigozzi driving a Simca

What to say about the man everyone knows but few have heard of? He is a mystery, a scion of a wealthy French automaker, an avid African art collector, a high society stalwart and quite possibly – the very last great bon vivant, in truest sense of the phrase. 

Mick Jagger and Dennis Hopper at Pigozzi's villa Society Photographers
Mick Jagger and Dennis Hopper at Pigozzi’s villa

Jean (Johnny to his friends) is big man with an even bigger personality. Throughout his time he has lived a life so full that few could ever even imagine. Fortunately, he has documented this incredible existence with his Leica camera throughout the decades. 

His photographs feature his celebrity and society friends relaxing by the pool of his impossibly gorgeous Villa Dorane in Cap d’Antibes, on board his yacht The Amazon Express, on his Panamanian island Simca (named after his father’s famous car company) and in a whole list of other wonderful and surreal locations. 

Pigozzi at Villa Dorane - Society Photographers
Pigozzi at Villa Dorane

Italian publisher (and friend) Rizzoli has published various books of Pigozzi’s photographs – all essentials for discerning coffee tables worldwide.


Slim Aarons

Slim Aarons - Society Photographers
Slim Aarons

After cutting his teeth as war photographer, Aarons came back home to the USA determined to leave the ugliness of humanity behind and instead focus on its beauty. His emphasis became capturing the beautifully leisurely lives of the jet set in their natural habitats; villas, boats, planes and clubs abounding in his photographs. 

Laura Hawk - Society Photographers
Laura Hawk

Beyond being a fly on the wall, Aarons was a master of composition – achieving visually arresting, intimate portraits that also perfectly encapsulated their moment in time and the beauty of their surroundings.

Cocktails  - Society Photographers
Cocktails

Getty published a book of his works in 2007 and has gone on to release many more. No one captured the spirit of the early jet set better than Slim.


Dafydd Jones

Trinity College - Society Photographers
Trinity College

Jones is to the British high society what Slim was to the European and NY jet set; the documentarian de rigueur. Unabashedly capturing over three consecutive decades of debauchery, dilettantes and debutants – his photographs offer a rare look into the lives of the ‘bright young (and sometimes not so young) things’ in a dramatically changing British society. 

Sandringham  - Society Photographers
Sandringham

His exhibition The Last Hurrah the last gasp of the aristocratic old world – hidden behind elite colleges and universities, fortified in manors and castles, offering a true time capsule for posterity. 


Bob Colacello

Colacello with Warhol - Society Photographers
Colacello with Warhol

If there was ever a title that screamed access it is ‘Andy Warhol’s right hand man’. As the editor of Warhol’s Interview magazine, Colacello burst the doors wide open to a world of pop-stars and royalty, taking candids with a minuscule Minox 35 EL camera along the way. 

Diana Vreeland and Countess Consuelo Crespi - Society Photographers
Diana Vreeland and Countess Consuelo Crespi

Thanks to the camera’s tiny size and his unparalleled little black book, Colacello was able to take impossibly intimate pictures at events that ranged from the American Presidential Inaugurations at the White House to Oscar parties in Los Angeles. 

Now in his 70s, Colacello continues to write and photograph for major publications and has NY exhibition with Vito Schnable Projects.


Dennis Hopper

Dennis Hopper - Easy Rider - Society Photographers
Dennis Hopper – Easy Rider

Multi-hyphenate talent Hopper, brought intensity and energy to any project he tackled. On screen he entranced us with his performances in classics such as Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, Apocalypse and Rebel Without A Cause. Off screen he was also prolific, taking his camera across the US documenting the turbulent 1960’s era that defined modern America. 

Dennis Hopper - Apocalypse Now
Dennis Hopper – Apocalypse Now

He captured the artists, protestors, musicians, misfits. actors, average joes, and politicians that shaped the landscape – leaving behind a truly incredible repertoire. His photography has since become a staple of major photographic collections and exhibitions around the world.


Bill Bernstein

Studio 54 - Society Photographers
Studio 54

Bertstein captured the soul and imagination of a 1970s NYC better than anyone by focusing his lens on the beating heart of the Big Apple – its nightlife. He takes on the city as a subject with an almost almost anthropological fascination – from its glitzy nights at Studio 54 to the gritty reality of its homeless. 

Studio 54 - Society Photographers
Studio 54

He poses the question; “who are these people of the night…?” And replies with an unreserved, authentic retort from the front lines; “the Posers. The Watchers. The Posers watching other Posers watching the Watchers, watching the Dancers, watching themselves.” 


Sammy Davis Jr.

Sammy Davis Jr.
Sammy Davis Jr.

Sammy was a rule breakers. He was a consummate artist with immeasurable skills, effortlessly singing, dancing, performing, acting and photographing in a seemingly endless stream of output. He was an icon as much as he was a star; as the only black and Jewish member of the Rat Pack, he created a platform for fellow minorities to break through. 

Sean Connory
Sean Connory

His world was as rarefied as he was, gliding through the A-list inner sanctum, and rubbing shoulders with the rest of the world’s pantheon of greats. Fortunately for all of us he captured many of these historic moments with a keen eye and a sharp lens.

After his death, his longtime friend Burt Boyar compiled some of Davis’ extensive photo archive into a wonderful book, Photo by Sammy Davis, Jr.


UP NEXT: The next generation… the greats of contemporary photography