“Something in my head gets turned on by seeing a woman’s looks really come together with the right makeup, the right hairstyle, the right clothes… it’s exciting to see a woman metamorphosed into something extraordinary… But what gives me the biggest kick of all is to see a woman… not just looking her best but knowing she looks her best…” -Francesco Scavullo

His sisters, pictures and bussing tables

Francesco Scavullo began his photography career by making pictures of his sisters and their friends. He would style their hair and do their makeup so they resembled his vision of the movie star look. He set up a studio and darkroom in a spare room offered by his mother. His father would not have his son be a photographer. He wanted his son to be in management in hotels or restaurants. He arranged for Francesco to work as a busboy at the Colony Restaurant. This did not end well. The chefs chased young Scavullo with their carving knives. Scavullo recalls a singular triumph working there. He finished a glass of champagne started by Joan Crawford.

Horst P. Horst, Diana Vreeland and Betty Bacall

Scavullo claimed that this photograph for Harper's Bazaar by Louise Dahl-Wolf because he set it up.
“The Look” by Louise Dahl-Wolfe for Harper’s Bazaar.

Scavullo worked as an apprentice at a catalog house. Before long, he found himself in a trial at Vogue magazine. For six months he assisted Horst P. Horst. Horst soon became Scavullo’s mentor and his friend. In another studio he met Harper’s Bazaar editor Diana Vreeland. who had with her a young model, Betty Bacall. Scavullo claimed that even though he did not take it, the photograph that became known as “The Look” was 50% his because he set up the scene itself. Betty Bacall, by the way, is known to the world as Lauren Bacall.

By the time he was 19, Scavullo had many credits in well-known magazines. Finally at ease with his son’s career, his father bought him a four story carriage house that Scavulo would occupy for five decades. His first magazine cover was for Seventeen.

Cosmopolitan and the “cosmo girl”

It was 1965. Helen Gurley Brown was the editor of Cosmopolitan magazine. She wanted a sexier cover look so she turned to Scavullo. He created the look that became known as the “Cosmo girl,” a celebration of women’s sexuality. He photographed every cover of the magazine for the next 30 years.

Other covers — albums, movies, Broadway & magazines

Francesco Scavullo was in demand from many creators. He photographed for the covers of Time, Life, Vogue, Rolling Stone, Newsweek, Town and Country, Harper’s Bazaar, Mademoiselle, and Glamour. His photo of Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer graced the cover of their 12″ single “No More Tears.” He did covers for Janis Joplin, Chaka Kahn, the soundtrack of “A Star is Born” and posters for “A Star is Born” starring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson and “I, Divine.”

Joanna Coles, editor in chief of Cosmo on Francesco Scavullo

Thanks to the New York Times obituary of Francisco Scavullo.

Read other vignettes of influential photographers in On Photography.