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Steven Meisel: A Life Through The Lens

A look at the man behind fashion’s most iconic photographs.

They say that a picture is worth a thousand words. Perhaps this is why fashion photographer Steven Meisel rarely comments on his work, instead allowing the art to speak for itself. Having shot every cover of Vogue Italia since 1988, Meisel is the mastermind behind some of the most iconic images in fashion over the past forty years.

Meisel with Madonna
Meisel with Madonna

His remarkable career in photography began in the late 1970s, whilst he was working as an illustrator for New York publication Women’s Wear Daily. Oscar Reyes of Elite Management asked Steven, whose work he was a fan of, if he would be willing to photograph his models – some of these photographs made their way to the offices of Seventeen magazine, who saw something special in Meisel, and immediately wanted to work with him.

The rest was history, and what followed was an impressive portfolio of thought-provoking and provocative work, which Meisel said in a rare 2008 interview with 032C is designed to ‘hold up a mirror’ to societal issues and cultural changes in the world that we live in.

Steven Meisel: A Life Through The Lens

“The one thing that taking pictures allows you to do,” he explained to Pierre Alexandre De Looz, “is occasionally make a larger statement.” Meisel’s work certainly does not shy away from contentious issues. His editorials have encouraged discussions on everything from racism to war, and from the morality of the paparazzi to the growing popularity of cosmetic surgery. Meisel has previously stated that it isn’t uncommon for publications to reject his work for crossing a line.

Steven Meisel: A Life Through The Lens

Vogue Italia, however, has allowed Steven Meisel free reign over much of his creative output, and even exhibited many of his most controversial images for the 2017 Vogue Photo Festival in Milan.

“In terms of the Vogues that I work for, certainly Vogue Italia is the most lenient and allows me to do more or less what I feel like doing,” he told 032C. “Not that they don’t also kill things, but that doesn’t happen often; it’s been the most creative outlet that I have. Franca Sozzani, the editor, gives me room and is extremely supportive.”

One Meisel's many Vogue Italia covers. This one from from 1998
One Meisel’s many Vogue Italia covers. This one from from 1998

Franca Sozzani is just one of the many key-players in the fashion industry to have championed Steven Meisel not just as a creative, but as a friend too. Meisel himself believes that his rapport with the models he has shot over the years has contributed to the success of his work. He has been credited with launching the careers of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Linda Evangelista, who have been close friends of Meisel since the early days of their careers.

Steven Meisel: A Life Through The Lens

Evangelista has praised Meisel’s ability to make his subjects feel safe, and his ‘impeccable taste and judgement’, while Naomi Campbell has spoken highly of the lessons she feels she learned from Meisel on set.

“He taught me how to be a blank canvas,” she said, “like I can take on any character imaginable.”

In fact, Meisel was a driving force of the 1990s ‘supermodel moment’ on the whole, though his intention during this era was not to create a celebrity phenomenon – in his words, they were simply ‘having a great time and documenting it’. “I was photographing the girls that I loved. I liked glamour and these girls were very glamorous. It wasn’t something I did consciously. We were friends; it was my beginning as it was theirs.”

Steven Meisel: A Life Through The Lens

While he continues to shoot editorials with some of the most recognisable models of the present day, Meisel has since felt a shift in the relationship between himself and the models that he photographs. “Now I go to work and it’s a different world. I’m different and the models are different. What am I going to say to some sixteen-year-old girl who doesn’t speak the same language?”

Despite Meisel’s view on the changing landscape of his work, his images continue to influence the fashion photographers of the future. However, for Meisel himself, inspiration came from somewhere else entirely. “Beauty. I just reacted to it,” he told De Looz, upon being asked what had captivated him the most at the beginning of his illustrious career, “I can still clearly imagine some of the women in my head, girls at the time. It was just beauty to me.”

Steven Meisel: A Life Through The Lens

To this day, Meisel’s work seeks to ask questions to the viewer, and to create a discussion around the issues being highlighted through his art – and with the world continuing to change around us, these conversations show no signs of slowing down.


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