The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers


About The Book

In this rollicking account of fashion photography’s golden age, the New York Times bestselling author of Model and House of Outrageous Fortune, Michael Gross, brings to life the wild genius, ego, passion, and antics of the men (and a few women) behind the camera.

Before Instagram was an art form, fashion photographers and the models they made famous were pop culture royalty. From the postwar covers of Vogue to the triumph of the digital image, the fashion photographer sold not only clothes but ideals of beauty and visions of perfect lives. Even when they succumbed to temptation and excess—and did they ever—the very few photographers who rose to the top were artists, above all.

Focus probes the lives, hang-ups, and artistic triumphs of more than a dozen of fashion photography’s greatest visionaries: Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Melvin Sokolsky, Bert Stern, David Bailey, Bill King, Deborah Turbeville, Helmut Newton, Gilles Bensimon, Bruce Weber, Steven Meisel, Corinne Day, Bob and Terry Richardson, and more. From Avedon’s haute couture fantasies and telling portraits to Weber’s sensual, intimate, and heroic slices of life, and from Bob Richardson’s provocations to his son Terry’s transgressions, Focus takes readers behind the scenes to reveal the revolutionary creative processes and fraught private passions of these visionary magicians.

Tracing the highs and lows of fashion photography from the late 1940s to today, Gross vividly chronicles the fierce rivalries between photographers, fashion editors, and publishers like Condé Nast and Hearst, weaving together candid interviews, never-before-told insider anecdotes and insights born of his three decades of front-row and backstage reporting on modern fashion. An unprecedented look at an eccentric and seductive profession and the men and women who practice it on the treacherous shifting sands of pop and fashion culture, Focus depicts—perhaps most importantly—the rewards and cost, both terribly high, of translating an artist’s vision of beauty for an often cold and cruel commercial reality.


Focus Chapter 1 “A WITNESS”
A chilly rain was falling on November 6, 1989, when several generations of New York’s fashion and social elite gathered in the medieval-sculpture hall of the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a memorial celebrating Diana Vreeland, the fashion editor, curator, and quintessence of self-creation.

Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, for whom Vreeland was a fashion godmother, and Lauren Bacall, who’d been discovered by her, both arrived alone. Dorinda Dixon Ryan, known as D.D., who’d worked under Vreeland at Harper’s Bazaar, was seated next to Carolyne Roehm, one among many fashion designers in attendance. Mica Ertegun and Chessy Rayner, the society decorators, sat with Reinaldo Herrera, holder of the Spanish title Marqués of Torre Casa, whose family estate in Venezuela, built in 1590, is said to be the oldest continuously inhabited home in the Western Hemisphere.

One of Vreeland’s sons delivered a eulogy, as did socialite C. Z. Guest; Pierre Bergé, the business partner of Yves Saint Laurent; Oscar de la Renta, the society dressmaker; Philippe de Montebello, then the museum’s director and Vreeland’s final boss when she ran its Costume Institute; and George Plimpton, who cowrote her memoir, D.V. But the afternoon’s most telling fashion moment came in between Montebello and Plimpton, when photographer Richard Avedon, who’d worked with Vreeland from the start of his career, took the stage.

Avedon was a giant in fashion and society, an insider and an iconoclast, a trenchant critic of the very worlds that had made him a star, arguably the most celebrated photographer of the twentieth century. Never one to mince words or spare the feelings of others (“Oh, Dick, Dick, Dick is such a dick,” a junior fashion editor once said), he used his eulogy as a gun aimed at Vreeland’s latest successor at Vogue, Anna Wintour.

Though he never once mentioned her name, he sought to wound Wintour, who’d arrived at the memorial with her bosses, the heads of Condé Nast Publications, S. I. “Si” Newhouse Jr., the company’s chairman, and Alexander Liberman, its editorial director. Just a year earlier, they’d let Wintour replace Avedon as the photographer of Vogue’s covers. Only a few in the audience knew that Avedon had actually shot a cover for the November 1988 issue, Wintour’s first as editor in chief of Vogue, and that no one had bothered to alert him that Wintour had replaced it with a picture by the much-younger Peter Lindbergh. Avedon only found out when the printed issue arrived at his studio.

He never shot for Vogue again.

A year later, Avedon served up his revenge dressed in a tribute to the woman he’d sometimes refer to as his “crazy aunt” Diana. Avedon recalled their first meeting in 1945 when he was twenty-two and fresh out of the merchant marine. Carmel Snow was about to make true his short lifetime’s dream of taking photographs for Harper’s Bazaar, the magazine she edited that he’d first encountered as the son of a Fifth Avenue fashion retailer. Newspaper and magazine stories about the Vreeland memorial would linger on in Avedon’s recollections of their first meeting, how he watched her stick a pin into both a dress and the model wearing it, “who let out a little scream,” he remembered. Vreeland turned to him for the very first time and said, “Aberdeen, Aberdeen, doesn’t it make you want to cry?”

It did, he went on, but not because he loved the dress or appreciated the mangling of his name. He went back to Carmel Snow and said, “I can’t work with that woman.” Snow replied that he would, “and I did,” Avedon continued, “to my enormous benefit, for almost forty years.”

But that charming opening anecdote was nothing compared to what followed. Avedon extolled Vreeland’s virtues, “the amazing gallop of her imagination,” her preternatural understanding of what women would want to wear, her “sense of humor so large, so generous, she was ever ready to make a joke of herself,” and the diligence that made her “the hardest-working person I’ve ever known. . . .

“I am here as a witness,” Avedon concluded. “Diana lived for imagination ruled by discipline, and created a totally new profession. Vreeland invented the fashion editor. Before her, it was society ladies who put hats on other society ladies. Now, it’s promotion ladies who compete with other promotion ladies. No one has equaled her—not nearly. And the form has died with her. It’s just staggering how lost her standards are to the fashion world.”

Sitting at the front of the audience between her two bosses, wearing a Chanel suit that mixed Vreeland’s signature color, red, with the black of mourning, the haughty Wintour, her eyes hidden behind sunglasses, gave no hint that she knew Avedon was speaking to her. But even though he saw her ascendance as a sign of the fashion Apocalypse, it’s unlikely that even the prescient Avedon could have foreseen all the other, related forces then taking shape that would, in little more than a decade, fundamentally alter the role—fashion photographer—that he’d not only mastered but embodied.

About The Author

©David Bailey/Camera Eye Ltd.

Michael Gross is the author of the New York Times bestsellers House of Outrageous Fortune, 740 Park, and Model: The Ugly Business of Beautiful Women, as well as Rogues’ Gallery, and Unreal Estate. A contributing editor of Departures, he created the blog Gripepad and has written for The New York Times, New York, Vanity Fair, Esquire, GQ, The Daily Beast/Newsweek, and many other publications.

Official hashtag: #focusyourselfie
Facebook: MichaelGrossAuthor
Instagram: @FocusYourSelfie
Twitter: MGrossGripepad

Product Details

  • Publisher: Atria Books (July 5, 2016)
  • Length: 416 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781476763460

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Raves and Reviews

“Does not skimp on the gossipy goods. There are descents into madness, prolific drug use, orgies, blackmail photos and suicide attempts…But this book…is also smart, well-researched and written with an insider’s eye…engaging and on point.”

– Kim France, New York Times Book Review

"I thought I knew practically everything about the fashion industry, but Michael Gross has corrected me. His thoroughly absorbing narrative dazzles with the most profound investigation and research. Focus is an enthralling and riveting read!"

– Tim Gunn

"FOCUS is the House of Cards of fashion."

– Nino Cerruti

“Michael Gross's FOCUS is that rare thing: an equally delicious and deeply informative book, a news-breaking romp through the world of fashion photography, from its beginnings early in the last century to the recent controversial exploits of super bad boy Terry Richardson. Richard Avedon, Bert Stern, Deborah Turbeville, Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel: these and so many others whose work I've enjoyed in VOGUE and BAZAAR are given context and smart analysis, and magazine editors and owners appear, too, revealing an industry of art and commerce. An outstanding work of cultural history.”

– Sheila Weller, author of GIRLS LIKE US and THE NEWS SORORITY

"Michael Gross takes us on a compelling journey through a hugely desirable culture—a culture which sometimes destroyed its most brilliant children and which is now slipping as irretrievably into the past as Versailles or the Swinging '60s."

– Anthony Haden-Guest, author of Bad Dreams, True Colors, and The Last Party

"Amazing... a phantasmagoria of gossip, history, fabulous times, terrible times; the men (and a couple of women) who turned their creative lenses onto runways, clothes, models and (as in the case of Richard Avedon) onto America itself... If you love fashion and/or the art of photography, this book is for you. Focus gives us page after page of down and delicious dish... Gross captures the bizarre hot-house intensity of an industry that is both ever-changing but eternally the same... This is a big, intelligent, exhaustively researched, lovingly written book... Focus finds the fire beneath the ice of glossy magazine pages, and does it without burning down the house."

– Liz Smith, New York Social Diary

“I loved reading all the juicy details that Michael uncovered in this fast-paced—and clearly insider—look at the rarefied, sexy world of fashion photography.”

– Lauren Weisberger, author of The Devil Wears Prada and The Singles Game

“A gossipy exposé … of the talented, arrogant, philandering, combative, self-aggrandizing photographers whose work appeared in, and defined, such iconic fashion magazines as Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, Glamour, and Elle from 1947 to 1997. Not a pretty picture of sex, drugs, beautiful women, and raw ambition."

– Kirkus

“Tales of famous shoots and industry backstories during the ‘glory days’ of the genre… of the sexual promiscuity and recreational drug use of these (mostly male) photographers… The subject matter will be historically significant to those who are concerned with the photo artist’s role in the golden age of modern fashion photography. VERDICT Recommended for enthusiasts of fashion and fashion photography.”

– Library Journal

“This is the best book on the real world of top photographers in the fashion industry ever. Having hired and worked with many of them covered in Michael's book I can tell you the back stories are mind blowing. Anyone remotely connected to fashion should read his book!”

– Barry Kieselstein-Cord, designer

“A deep-diving exposé into the world of iconic fashion photographers…groundbreaking.”

– DuJour Magazine

"A sizzling, gossipy read...Relentless reporting."

– Hamptons Magazine

"Hot dish."

– New York Daily News

A "don't miss . . . must-read."

– The Daily Summer

"A juicy history of the scandalous lives of fashion photographers. He is nearly encyclopedic in his approach, covering a dizzying number of photographers . . . anyone interested in fashion and/or photography will find Gross' full immersion fascinating."


– Booklist

"An often-shocking tale rife with bed-hopping hotties, rampant drug use and cut-throat antics. Gross knows his stuff, delving deep into the fascinating rivalries and wicked manipulations that take place behind the cameras."

– The Daily News

A “bombshell tell-all. . . Shocking.”

– The Daily Mail

"Laying bare friendships, breakups, rivalries, and liaisons among fashion photographers over the past six decades, ...interweaving anecdotes, interviews, and images by renowned photographers like Helmut Newton, Irving Penn, and Corinne Day, Focus delves into the stories behind their cameras, exposing both their unparalleled talents and private affairs."

– New York Magazine

"Gross has deftly woven an intricate web of fashion, photography, and magazine publishing that is simply unrivaled... Focus is a sensation... [It] brilliantly blends the wild histories of seemingly disparate lives... Gross is a modern-day Vasari, giving us The Lives of the Artists in no small measure."

– craveonline

“In an astonishing and unprecedented look at the top-tier of photographers, Gross exposes the egos and private passions of these manipulative artists.”

– The Daily Mail

"An exciting read, full of anecdotes and whispers of a fashion era long gone, a must for photography enthusiasts, magazine historians, fashionistas, and lovers of haute couture gossip."


“Wine, women and song. Boys too, if required. Not to mention drugs. Cool dudes, flashy cars, psycho-tempers,  and sex everywhere to choose from. Work junkets all over the world and surrounded by beautiful people looking up at them rather than vice versa, The photographers were the real story.”

– David Patrick Columbia, New York Social Diary

"A cultural history of how photography shaped the rest of the fashion industry... a survey of men behaving badly...Gross captures so well the century-long rivalry between Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar... Important."

– National Post

"A delicious read. Sweeping...thoughtful..."

– The Daily Beast

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