“A career high was when I did a cover for W Magazines July issue with Steven Meisel. So few girls shoot with Meisel in their career, and a lot of people had told me I would never achieve that, so it was a dream come true.” -Joan Smalls 

Steven Meisel and Italian Vogue

Steven Meisel has dominated Italian Vogue by shooting every cover for the last 2 decades along with every Prada campaign since 2004. He is one of the preeminent fashion photographers with commercial clients including Versace, Valentino, Louis Vuitton and Calvin Kline.

Illustrator becomes photographer — Steven Meisel’s early years

Meisel taught illustration at Parsons: The New School for Design at night while creating fashion illustrations for Halston during the 1970s. He also worked for Women’s Wear Daily as an illustrator. During this time illustration was the visual staple of the magazine. One of his illustrations is in the upper right corner of the opening photo.

Meisel’s career in photography began when Oscar Reyes who worked as a booker for Elite and was an admirer of the artist’s illustrations. He asked Meisel to photograph some Elite models for their portfolios. Meisel worked with them outdoors on the streets and at his apartment in Gramercy Park. Some of the girls would carry their portfolios filled with Meisel’s work on go-sees for Seventeen magazine who wound up calling Meisel to produce work for the magazine.

First models

Steven Meisel has always loved beauty. His hobby was drawing women in his sketchbook. He was inspired by Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar and used them as starting places for his drawings. He loved Jean Shrimpton and Twiggy two of David Baily’s favorite models. When he was 12, he asked some of his older girlfriends to call modeling agencies saying they worked for Richard Avedon. They would set meetings for Miesel with some very famous models. This tactic worked in getting to meet Twiggy outside of Marvin Sokolsky’s studio.

His early education included a major in fashion illustration from Parson’s New School of Design.

On Photography: Steven Meisel, 1954-present
Steven Meisel with Madonna

Madonna by Steven Meisel

Steven Meisel photographed the album cover (opening photo, last one on the right) for “Like a Virgin” released in 1984. In an article for Vogue, Madonna recalls working with him this way, “Before I worked with Steven, I just showed up in the clothes I was wearing, stood in front of the lights, and got my picture taken. With Steven, a team of people descended on me, started to undress me. Someone grabbed my hair, another grabbed my face, another started helping me try on various bits of clothes, and they all seemed to be speaking a language I didn’t understand — the language of Steven Meisel.”

In 1992 Madonna released her album Erotica on October 20th. A day later, her aluminum cover, spiral-bound collaboration with Steven Meisel and designed by Fabien Baron, “SEX,” went on sale. The 1.5 million limited edition sold out in days. It is one of the most in-demand out-of-print books of all time. In her review of “SEX” by Madonna, Caryn James of The New York Times writes, “Only a few bold images are characteristic of the fashion photographer Steven Meisel’s best work. Many of the black-and-white photos are tinted yellow or green or blue, creating a chintzy look. It is hard to guess how much of that cheap effect is deliberate, meant to suit the rough-edged fantasies.”

SEX by Madonna, photographed by Steven Meisel

Themed fashion shoots

Steven Meisel has a lot to say with his photography. He has created fashion work by names like “Face the Future,” “The Discipline of Fashion,” “Venus in Furs,” “State of Emergency” and “Super Mods Enter Rehab.” Several of these are not safe for viewing at work (NSFW.) That warning aside, the themes are controversial and thought-provoking. Spend some time with these photographs.

Other stories of inspirational photographers are in On Photography.