Melvin Sokolsky, a photographer whose fantastical and sometimes surreal work brought an experimental energy to Harper’s Bazaar and fashion imagery in the 1960s, died Aug. 29 in Beverly Hills, Calif. 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.
At a time of cultural upheaval, Sokolsky sought to detach fashion photography from its more classical and classist roots. His stories were ambitious, otherworldly and often technically and logistically complex to pull off, all at a time when digital technology did not simplify the process of taking and manipulating images.
Perhaps the most famous of these was his March 1963 series of “bubbles” for Bazaar, which featured model Simone D’Aillencourt floating in a translucent space-age 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 time when a range of youth subcultures and social movements challenged the whirlwind of old society and European perspectives that had long dominated high fashion. Bazaar he himself was also in a period of transition, like many of the legendary creative forces of the magazine’s vaunted post-war golden age – editor Carmel Snow; fashion editor Diana Vreeland; artistic director Alexey Brodovitch; and soon photographer Richard Avedon – had retired or were about to leave.
Born in New York in 1933 and raised on the Lower East Side, Sokolsky is self-taught and trained as a photographer. As a child, he was always interested in art and experimented with his father’s camera. But from an early age, Sokolsky was driven by the idea that he would need to work to support his family after his father was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis while Sokolsky was still in high school.
Sokolsky’s big breakthrough came in 1959, when Brodovitch’s successor to Bazaar, Henry Wolf, spotted an ad in the magazine that Sokolsky had shot. Wolf called Sokolsky and offered him an assignment, which would include a cover image attempt. Sokolsky was nervous, but Vreeland’s assistant at the time, Ali MacGraw, who after starring 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 liked, which he made sure to pull off. Sokolsky didn’t get the cover, but he quickly became a regular contributor to Bazaar.
Nonetheless, the series of bubbles came at an inauspicious time for both Sokolsky and the magazine. Wolf had left in 1961, Vreeland decamping the following year to vogue, where she will soon be named editor-in-chief. In December 1962, Sokolsky was asked to shoot a report on the Parisian collections, but Wolf’s replacement, Marvin Israel, and BazaarThe editor of Nancy White, both had reservations about the concept he came up with: he wanted to photograph a model in a giant bubble hovering over the city.
Sokolsky, however, came up with the idea, inspired in part by the 15th-century triptych by Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch. The Garden of Earthly Delights, which depicted the story of creation and included tiny figures and animals in floating transparent bubble-like spheres. Sokolsky remembers being fascinated by this painting as a teenager, imagining himself inside one, making his way excitedly around the city. He also recalled seeing a department store window where shoes and handbags were displayed in clear, round plastic containers.
When White and Israel whitewashed the feasibility of the project, Sokolsky agreed to do some test firings. He had two giant Plexiglas hemispheres made 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 at Weehawken, on the New Jersey side of the Hudson River, and hired a crane, which he then used to hoist the bubble into the air with D’Aillencourt inside, photographing it with en backdrop of the Manhattan skyline.
At the end of January 1963, Sokolsky left for Paris with D’Aillencourt and MacGraw, who had left Bazaar working for him in the hybrid role of assistant, producer and fixer, along the ride. “Melvin asked if I could improve my high school French in order to interface with the Paris police to get permission day and night to set up our crane,” MacGraw recalled of last year’s shoot. “They were great fun and allowed us to shoot almost anywhere.”
The images of an elegantly dressed D’Aillencourt suspended mid-air in a plastic bubble seemed eerily futuristic and totally different from the established vernacular of fashion photography at the time. The women in his photos were not ethereal creatures that populated living rooms, lush gardens, and environments that immediately read as privileged. They were individuals with free will, trying to navigate a changing world. As he later recounted, the character of Aillencourt embodied in the series of bubbles was not, in his mind, trapped in the device but at the controls of it. “I secretly saw it as a Sokolsky plane that could fly anywhere on an in-ring motor,” he said in 2019. “It wasn’t a girl caught in a bubble. She was a woman at the helm of her spaceship.
Sokolsky’s bubble series became the first successful fashion story for Bazaar in the post-Vreeland period. It also marked the start of a prolific creative run for Sokolsky, an inveterate storyteller whose images evoked multidimensional characters and fabled tales, but were often set in realistic and, in some cases, hyper-real environments.
For a shoot that appeared in the November 1963 issue, Sokolsky was again inspired by art. Inspired by the surreal scale of René Magritte’s 1952 painting personal values, which represented the contents of a bedroom – a glass, a comb, a match and a brush – made huge and leaning on the furniture, he shot a feature film that involved models climbing and leaping from a gargantuan chair and other furniture. “My mother’s old kitchen chair was stored in the prop room at the studio – a simple kitchen chair that I grew up sitting on,” he said. Bazaar in 2021. “I asked the carpenter to enlarge it up to 10 feet.”
In early 1965, Sokolsky returned to Paris for another story, this one with model Dorothy McGowan, who seemed to be flying (bubble-free) around town; McGowan was, in fact, suspended by a corset-harness contraption that Sokolsky again designed himself. “Watching Dorothy hang five stories above the street from a thin cable anchored to a steeply pitched roof was unnerving,” Sokolsky said. “To this day, I can imagine it flying over the city, bouncing off 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 business manager and cinematographer, which would become his primary focus over the next few decades. But a resurgence of interest in his photography in the late 1990s prompted him to return to creating still images, which he has continued to experiment with and push the boundaries of in recent years. For BazaarIn the December 2014/January 2015 issue, he even relaunched the bubble for a cover on Jennifer Aniston.
Sokolsky saw appreciation for his work diminish and evolve, but he remained captivated by it all. Last year, he pointed to a color release of the Big Chair story, which was set entirely in black and white. In the image, model Iris Bianchi is seen leaning on the giant chair in a red printed coat, as if she is about to fall forward or jump out of her seat. This shot, Sokolsky said — more than any photos that appeared in the magazine — was one that galleries and museums always requested for exhibits. “The art department thought the image was so weird,” he said. Bazaar. “At the time, most publishing choices were bourgeois gestures by models,” he said. “But times and tastes have changed. Exit becomes choice, setting a new standard.
Sokolsky is survived by his son, Bing Sokolsky, and his stepdaughter, Yuki Sokolsky. He was predeceased by his wife and longtime collaborator, Button Sokolsky.