“Hanumath”, part of the exhibition “Len Steckler: Reflections of the Man Behind the Mirror”
Back in December, I was recounting a wonderful story, one that resulted in one of the most beautiful photographs of Marilyn Monroe ever taken. It ignited an interest in me regarding the entire body of work of photographer Len Steckler. Limited Runs will exclusively exhibit the first of a series of fine art photo collections featuring Steckler’s fashion photography, including 28 legacy and/or never-before seen images from his fashion photography session taken between 1960 and 1966. The exhibition will take place throughout February in Los Angeles (“City of stars/Are you shining just for me/City of stars…” – sorry if you are not a fan of La La Land, but I am. The world needs more comedies, the best kind of, anyway).
For sure, good fashion photography is more than what meets the eye. And these photos by Len Steckler are certainly prone not only to catch the viewer’s eye, but to raise a question or two as well. The name of the exhibition alone, Reflections of the Man Behind the Mirror, intrigued me, so I reached out to the founder and president of Limited Runs, Pierre Vudrag, to unveil the layers of Steckler’s interesting take on fashion photography. There is plenty of mystery remaining though. And so it should.
What was the idea behind these photographs? In the early 1960s, fashion photography began to turn to itself as a subject, to its own artifice and staging. Do Len Steckler’s photographs hint at undressing the theater of fashion and questioning the creation of perfect beauty?
Len Steckler started his professional career as a graphic artist working for various advertising firms (he literally shared an office with Andy Warhol at one such agency) and gained prominence as the originator of the campaign for the first diet drink, Diet Pepsi.
Len often relied on the photographs of his model he used to design campaigns and found that the magazines began requesting more and more the use of the photos rather than his drawing. Reading the writing on the wall, he switched to photography as a primary means of earning a living. Having an artistic eye, Len believed that you could make photographs that satisfy the commercial needs of advertisers while at the same time fulfill his artistic vision. You will rarely find his models posing against a stark white background.
He also believed that you could place the model in every day settings, i.e. on the street of New York City, allowing the viewer to see how beautiful fashions looks in the real world (this is evident in our next collection) while at the same time enhancing the elegance of a collection. During these sessions, Len noticed and became fascinated with the reflections of his subject juxtaposed against the large windows of office building and store fronts. It gave Len and ultimately the viewer an alternative perspective of the model and the fashion. A single image showed the viewer another side or angle of the person/model. Depending on the shot, it could seem as if the reflection of the model has a different facial expression giving the illusion that someone else can be seen in that reflection. Len took this style into the studio where he began using a single mirror (see the photo called Pangea). He then began experimenting with multiple mirrors, then started using pieces of broken mirrors strategically placed around his subjects. He shot his subject’s reflection off of mirrored balls (aka disco balls). Eventually, Len took the concept to the ultimate conclusion and created a 360 degree room of mirrors. With this room, and depending on how Len shot his subject, he could give the viewer the illusion that the model is surrounded by several copies of herself, or if Len desired, hundreds of copies, thereby altering our perception of the model.
Why “Reflections of the Man Behind the Mirror”? It almost makes me expect to see the image of the photographer himself reflected in the mirror, too, self-consciously posing, undermining fashion’s glamorous illusions. How would you explain the title?
I wish that I could tell you that the title was meant to give the viewer the impression that it was meant to undermine the illusion of fashion, however, it was Len Steckler’s mission to enhance the illusion of fashion, make it feel other worldly while at the same time accessible to everyone.
The title simply came from the fact that as I was curating the collection, I reviewed hundreds of images and could not initially determine how Len was able to shoot the photos and not appear in the picture.
Exactly. How did he do that?
Eventually I discovered a handful of photos where his secret was revealed to me (only 2 appear in the collection). From what I’ve ascertained, Len had three approaches to achieving this. One is very obvious and one can easily be deduced by looking at certain images (see the photos entitled All of Us and Isosceles. The other two methods are less obvious, but if you study the photos in the Collection, both are revealed. I leave it to the viewer to see if they can find the clues.
photos: courtesy of Limited Runs