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Juicy Details from a Groundbreaking New Book

Marking the release of a deep-diving exposé into the world of iconic fashion photographers—its author reveals the story behind an image of a key group of characters from Focus

After moving to New York in the mid-’70s, one of my first encounters with a fashion model was in the men’s room at a restaurant on the Upper East Side called Nicola’s. There was Janice Dickinson, with her hand down some guy’s pants in the loo. She was so hot. Incandescent in person. It became clear immediately that there was a very compelling scene that surrounded this one particular group of people.

Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers by Michael Gross.

As I began to learn about fashion photography—and I discovered more about the guys in this picture, who were part of what’s known as the “French Mob”—they only became more fascinating. Several of them were warm, funny, delightful people. But I never knew the story of how they all had come to New York, and what had attracted them to the city. And how they revolved around the least known of them all—Pierre Houlès. 

Houlès was a photographer who didn’t care about photography. All he cared about was girls. With no apparent physical means of support, he could pull off carrying an Hermès appointment book, wearing John Lobb shoes and being the idol of Mike Reinhardt, Gilles Bensimon and Patrick Demarchelier. Houlès died very young, of a heart attack at 40, while jogging in Paris, training for the New York Marathon. 

This photo totally captures the innocent part of their charm. Most fashion photography is a kind of gleeful, happy, isn’t-this-great, Janice Dickinson–face thing, but there’s also a manipulative and creepy side to it. These guys want us to think they are having more fun than anyone—and when you look at this picture, you can just see how much they loved their lives. 

What the photo doesn’t show is that this was also a group of the most promiscuous—and in some, though not all cases, drug-addled, deceptive, Machiavellian—characters to ever frolic in the fashion world. 

Oddly, few women became successful fashion photographers. Gay and straight male photographers have dominated in alternating eras. The earliest fashion photographers were either gay aristocrats or gay gentlemen who were able to appear as if they were aristocratic. The next wave was made up of gay men who didn’t want to be known as gay. But then, in the ’60s, there came the first wave of heterosexual photographers, and that was the David Bailey, Bert Stern, Melvin Sokolsky, Jerry Schatzberg generation, all of whom inspired the 1966 movie Blow-Up. And it was that film that influenced the milieu of photographers epitomized by the three guys in this photograph—the ones who, amusingly, came along when fashion magazines changed from being retailers of extravagant fantasy and instead retailed the notion of a woman with her own power, a woman-in-full, a woman who worked, who played, who was sexually liberated: that woman of the early ’70s who appeared at the crossroads of self-actualization and women’s lib. 

What’s particularly ironic about that is that these women were immortalized by a generation of photographer-swordsmen. These guys lived and breathed boinking models. Look at the shit-eating grin on Mike Reinhardt’s face in this picture. Doesn’t it say, “Don’t you wish you were me?”