Melvin Sokolsky: A Specific Palette

By Barry Schwartz

I wrote a feature profile of Melvin Sokolsky, who passed on August 29, twelve years ago for Photo Media Magazine. The piece was based on research, time spent socially, and a long interview I did with him at his house, sitting in his comfortable studio surrounded by printers, prints, and flat-file cabinets. Anyone who met Melvin could tell you he was a world-class talker, engaging, authoritative, funny, and with enough stories to fill a book. Following is the full text.

Melvin Sokolsky was 18 years old, on his way to look at a studio to share in New York. He was with his girlfriend — now his wife — Button. The door on the seventh floor was opened by “a balding, chubbyish man with a little tummy, and he had a very thick accent. And I was like a gymnast. I looked at him as a guy who doesn’t take care of himself. That was my mentality at that time. All sorts of criteria, of judgment, suspicion; I had it all.”

The man asked if he could photograph Sokolsky’s girlfriend. While he was setting up, Sokolsky wandered around the studio, where there were matted prints stacked against the wall. “I look through them and I’m blown away; they’re, like, fantastic photographs. So, like a kid, I say, ‘Are these your photographs?’ And I hear, in this accent, ‘Why would I have somebody else’s pictures in my studio?’ And I felt kind of embarrassed, and suddenly this balding, chubby man, I had great respect for. I said, ‘Wow, these are fantastic.’ And I said, ‘Tell me again what’s your name?’ ‘Martin Munkácsi.’ I didn’t even know who he was.”

Munkácsi — one of the early giants of photography, including fashion photography, with a career going back to the 1920s — told Sokolsky to come back the next day to see the picture of his girlfriend, a head shot taken with an 8×10 camera. When Sokolsky remarked on the large amount of white space in the image, Munkácsi “said to me, ‘Bring me that scissor.’ He took the scissor, and he cut it down to a 4×5. He says, ‘You like this better?’ And that was one of the great lessons I learned that took place with four scissor strokes.

“In two days I learned more in metaphors and examples than reading or listening to anybody else. Because I never worked for anybody, I always had this inner fear of saying to anybody, ‘I’m really uneducated about any of this stuff — I’m doing it all on instinct.’ Later I came to the point where I realized that doing it all on instinct was my best years.”

For the past half-century, Sokolsky’s instincts have helped turn him into one of the industry’s premier fashion, celebrity and advertising photographers. Since he began his career at Harper’s Bazaar in 1959, his signature style has been one of constant change.

Sokolsky’s use of gesture — poetic and balletic, based on how ordinary people behave — was radical in its time and is still evident in his present work. Many of his iconic images, often with models in couture fashions seeming to float in front of the lens, seem as fresh and modern today as they were groundbreaking in the 1960s. His use of continuous light and the wide range of his palette remain dramatic, subtle, emotional and always in support of gesture and the ideas that support the concept of the picture.

Now in his 70s, Sokolsky continues to produce startling imagery and has recently completed a lavish anthology of his greatest works, called “Archive,” which has a limited print run of just 1,000 copies, the first 300 of which contain an original archival print signed by the artist.

“I consider my photographs translations of my thinking into images that are formed by the sum of my experience,” he writes at the beginning of the book. “My ideas are usually inspirations that silently whisper to me in the most unexpected places and times. … In my world — and I make no claim to being a philosopher — ideas are the seeds that grow interesting photographs.”

Art-world inspiration

Growing up on New York City’s Lower East Side in a neighborhood of Russians, Poles and Italians, Sokolsky never followed the standard path of assisting established photographers, but he did receive some technical schooling, from a single book published in 1951. “The Art and Technique of Color Photography,” edited by the legendary art director Alexander Liberman, contained the work of 17 photographers, including Horst, Irving Penn, André Kertész and Cecil Beaton, along with technical details about the images, listing data on cameras, lenses, lighting and film.

Sokolsky began another kind of training at age 13, informal yet highly focused, based on countless visits to New York’s museums, devouring Bosch, Velázquez, the Surrealists, Balthus and Van Eyck — images to which he continues to refer. The history of photography was not left behind.

“I went back to daguerreotypes, back to everything,” he says. “I looked at everybody. I looked at salt prints; I was a voracious ‘need-to-knower.’ Each of those things produced an immediate visceral response of what I liked and what I didn’t like. I was highly opinionated, and that opinionating is what saved me.”

It is also what got him his breakthrough photo. He had begun dropping off his book for art director Ira Mazer at the top-flight ad agency Doyle Dane Bernbach. Mazer told him his pictures were very good, but too “arty” for advertising. He told Sokolsky to keep trying, however, and finally, in 1959, when Sokolsky was 21, Mazer literally threw a fur coat at him across his office to use as a tryout for an ad for the coat’s manufacturer. This was the entirety of his direction — along with a promised $200 fee, succeed or fail — and a name credit if he succeeded. Sokolsky called up the Ford Agency, conveniently around the corner from his studio, suggesting he had the manufacturer’s account, and asked for Anne St. Marie, then one of the industry’s hottest models. She showed up the next day.

The resulting photo — taken with an 8×10 camera, every strand of hair in focus, no trace of “artiness” in sight — ran as a full-page ad in Harper’s Bazaar. A month later, Sokolsky’s phone rang, with another heavily accented voice at the other end, identifying himself as Henry Wolf, then the art director at Harper’s Bazaar. Believing it was his brother pulling a prank, Sokolsky hung up. “The phone rang again, and he says, ‘I think we were disconnected.’ And then I realized it was real, and I went up there.” After shooting two jobs, Wolf said to me, ‘You’re very strong. How would you like to be a permanent fixture here?,’ and I said I’d love it, and I was a Harper’s Bazaar photographer.”

Creativity reigns

Working as a magazine photographer led to great fame for Sokolsky. What was less well known, throughout the 1960s and into the 1970s, was that he was also one of the busiest advertising photographers in the world. (Just as it is today, editorial did not pay as well as commercial work.) During this period he shot ads for Guerlain Perfume, Glenoit Fabrics, Mary Quant Cosmetics and Charles of the Ritz.

His New York studio on East 39th Street had a staff of 30, including his wife; a number of full-time carpenters; and an employee he induced to leave her job as assistant to Diana Vreeland, the editor of Harper’s Bazaar: actress/model Ali MacGraw, who worked for Sokolsky for six years starting in 1961, bringing with her a vast network of contacts and a willingness to take risks.

These being glory years for creatives, photographers were not just granted great freedom but were also expected to exercise it liberally. Early in his relationship with Henry Wolf, Sokolsky shot a portrait of an industrialist’s wife, very pretty, but at 38 “older than most of the women I had photographed for Harper’s Bazaar that were 20 years old with perfect skin.

“These were like magical, perfect girls.” Faced with the assignment, Sokolsky found that “when you had a couple of wrinkles and stuff, you had something to fight with. Well, I came up with a light for her, I took the picture, sent it over to Henry, and Henry looked at it and said, ‘If I want [Richard] Avedon, I know how to walk from here to 62nd Street.’ And I was hurt. He says, ‘I want your look, your lighting. I want your ideas, I don’t want my ideas.’ ”

Perhaps Sokolsky’s most famous pictures are the “Bubble” series from 1963, featuring Simone d’Aillencourt encased in a large Plexiglas bubble (designed and built by Sokolsky) suspended variously over the streets of Paris and above the river Seine. (The series grew out of a fascination with a Bosch painting, “The Garden of Earthly Delights,” that he first saw 10 years before,) Sokolsky pitched the idea of the “Bubble” series as street reportage, showing pedestrians reacting to the invasion of an alien space bubble, but he encountered resistance from Nancy White, editor-in-chief of Harper’s. He also heard that Richard Avedon didn’t think the project would fly. Diana Vreeland, who was an ally, gave Sokolsky permission to shoot a test in the bubble from a bluff in New Jersey, overlooking New York City. The test was such a success that one of the bubble images, with d’Aillencourt wearing an orange flowing dress, made the cover of Harper’s Bazaar.

The spirit and execution of those images, which put Sokolsky on the map, came from his basic way of working, which was that his pictures first begin life as an idea. “I felt — and I don’t know where it came from; nobody taught me this — I thought that the photograph that you took, you were responsible for every piece of it. I could close my eyes and kind of see the lighting, so I would move the light around until it looked close to what I had in my mind — I never was able to get it as good — and then when I let the girls go, there was a first level, a second level, a third level, a level past lunch, and then all of a sudden you were past the introductory parts, and you were even past the sexual parts, you were into discovery parts of yourselves and together, and so on. It was about living in the space. And when you live in that space, magic can happen, and if you don’t, it can’t happen.

“I was working day and night, seven days a week, sometimes until 3 or 4 in the morning, without stopping,” he recalls of the vibrant and free-wheeling 1960s era. “At that time, girls cost $12 an hour, $125 a day for Harper’s Bazaar.”

While the finances were certainly from another era, the biggest change Sokolsky has seen over the years is the loss of connection with his subjects.

“Usually, these days, a shoot takes place, you meet somebody, and before you get to know them, the shoot’s over, so you’ve really had no contact; there’s no anything,” he says. Years ago, he adds, “you hung out, you ate together, you came back, [saying] ‘let’s try it again, let’s do this.’ … You stopped thinking about each other. You actually explored, you actually lost your inhibition. You didn’t care what Melvin would think if you turned your ass to him. Since there was no judgment, there was a myriad of magic that was taking place.”

TV land beckons

That magic led another art director at Doyle Dane Bernbach, Bill Taubin, to suggest that Sokolsky consider directing commercials. “He said to me, ‘Can you make the still pictures you take come out to look like that on film?’ Because at that time, if you looked at commercial lighting, most of it was hard lighting with all kinds of cross-shadows. It was pretty ugly.”

That first commercial showed margarine melting through vegetables, including a split potato and a piece of broccoli. “You were following the margarine melting. I lit it the way I would light something, the way I liked it to look. It got into the Art Directors’ Show. It was a food commercial that won medals. So suddenly, I was the guy to come to for television commercials.”

Sokolsky moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1970s, where over the course of the next couple of decades he won numerous awards, including 25 Clios — the Oscars of commercials. The one that made him an even bigger star as director-cameraman was a Contac ad featuring singing and dancing curly-haired blondes in the style of Busby Berkeley. He also made commercials for Volkswagen and DuPont, a sexy Ultra Brite toothpaste spot, an Atari ad featuring E.T. and ads for Dr. Pepper. (Remember “I’m a Pepper, You’re a Pepper …”?)

All the while, he continued to shoot fashion and celebrities, as he still does. He co-designed a computerized zoom lens system that was used in the opening sequence in the film “The Godfather,” earning him a technical Oscar nomination. He also keeps busy with hands-on remodeling of his house and works on metal sculptures. On weekends for a time, he assisted a friend of his, a veterinary surgeon, during surgical procedures.

The digital wrench

It should be no surprise, then, to find that in 2000 Sokolsky embraced digital photography, seeing it as neither a panacea nor a curse. “What I’m interested in is creating my own palette. When Adobe called a bunch of people in and showed them Camera Raw, they said to me, ‘You don’t look happy with it. Don’t you want Velvia? You can do Velvia, you can do Provia.’ I said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘What is it you want?’ I want Melvia. Because that’s really what you want. When you see a van Gogh painting, how do you know it’s a van Gogh painting? When you look at the thickness of the paint, and the stroke, and so on. It’s a palette that’s specific to a certain person. I want my palette to be specific. I don’t want it to look like what you can buy in the store.”

Sokolsky gets asked whether he would use Photoshop if he were to do the “Bubble” pictures today. He would not. Pointing at an image in the series that he calls “Du Taxi,” he says, “You take this picture. If I had a stepladder, I can step up five feet and look down on it, I could look up at it. In minutes I can do what would take you days and hours. Why would you want to do it in Photoshop? Yet when you grow up in a time when Photoshop is God, instead of knowing it’s a screwdriver or a wrench, you think it’s God. Well, Photoshop is just a wrench — a very good wrench.”

Proof of this concept is present in much of his recent work, which includes Photoshop-induced floods of water or a single model appearing several times in the same image. “The good part of the digital age is that now we have computers and tools that allow us to create our own emulsions. What I really mean is we can create our own palette.”

His work remains informed by techniques that predate Photoshop, such as his love of continuous lighting, and in 1967 he added banks of fluorescent tubes to his arsenal, beating the introduction of KinoFlos by at least 20 years.

An ‘Archive’ of riches

The culmination of Sokolsky’s work — so far — is his self-published and self-produced collector’s item book, “Archive.” An idea that had a “10-year rehearsal,” the book is a complete survey of his career. More than 470 pages long and exquisitely printed on archival paper using the most advanced technology available, it contains forewords by James Rosenquist, Ali MacGraw and Raphaëlle Stopin, along with essays by Sokolsky.

Together with Sara Siri, a graphic design student at Art Center in Pasadena, Sokolsky produced the book in three months of solid work. “This book is about photography; this book is not about type,” he says. It includes all of his iconic photos and presents some of his series, such as the “String” series, in their intended narrative order for the first time. The book is not cheap ($500), but the printing quality is, literally, as good as it gets, and it is less expensive than other, much shorter fine-art books of its type.

Sokolsky says about the book, as he says about his work: “Go for quality first, then set the price.”

He continues to shoot editorial work, recently photographing Anthony Hopkins and Andy Garcia for German Vogue. He has plans for another book — this one mostly type — on the ideas that fueled his career, and is developing several short films.

“If you’ve embarked on the trip of being free, and you are truly free, you’re not distracted by trying to prove anything,” he says. “The only distraction is discovery and exploration. So it allows you to explore. When you’re allowed to explore, and you’re not inhibited by anybody’s voice, anybody’s saying something, anybody doing something, you are free to try things. That instinct, that inspiration for that moment, is your best picture. I’ve been lucky enough to be allowed to live in that space.”

Barry Schwartz ( is an ex-journeyman carpenter and kitchen designer, currently still lugging around heavy bags as a commercial photographer. He is also a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.

Melvin Sokolsky

Home and Studio: Los Angeles ( Represented by the Fahey/Klein Gallery in Los Angeles. After moving his studio to Los Angeles in the 1970s, he found that his work — especially his commercial work — took him all over the world, so he eventually let the studio go. His present studio is in his home, and includes a custom-designed south-facing balcony with the ability to filter and block light.

Family Life: Lives with his wife, Button, married for many years. They have a son, Bing, a respected cinematographer whose credits include “NYPD Blue” and “Numbers.”

Preferred Equipment: Sokolsky’s equipment includes Apple computers and Canon DSLR cameras and lenses (he has used Canon equipment since 1961). He still occasionally shoots with a Deardorff 8×10. While he does most of his own Photoshop work, including compositing, he sometimes collaborates with retouchers.

Accolades: More than 25 Clio Awards and every major TV commercial award, including a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. Several of his TV commercials are part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Named an “Explorer of Light” by Canon USA in 1995.

Major Clients: More than 25 Clio Awards and every major TV commercial award, including a nomination from the Directors Guild of America. Several of his TV commercials are part of the permanent collection of New York’s Museum of Modern Art. Named an “Explorer of Light” by Canon USA in 1995.
Hobbies: He’s “a pretty good cook.”