Francesco Scavullo sat one recent morning on a tobacco-colored leather sofa in the East Side town house where he has lived and worked since 1948, silk-screens of his flower pictures and famous portraits punctuating an expanse of white walls and marble floors. When asked about fashion’s recent entanglement with grunge and heroin chic, the polar opposite of his glamorous vision for the world, Mr. Scavullo simply sighed.
“‘Beauty’ is a word that’s gotten a bum deal. People think beautiful is boring, but that’s not true. To be beautiful is to be godlike,” Mr. Scavullo said softly, his posture perfect.
Looking not a night older than he did in the early 1980′s, when the paparazzi regularly chronicled his reign as one of the dukes of the Studio 54 disco scene, Mr. Scavullo wore a white long-sleeve shirt over slim black jeans, black leather boots that looked buttered and tinted eyeglasses.
“Beautiful” is an obvious word to describe the magic Mr. Scavullo has worked over the years as the court photographer to the kingdom of celebrity. Sophia Loren, Elizabeth Taylor, Diana Ross, Brooke Shields, Candice Bergen, Sting and Janis Joplin (one of Mr. Scavullo’s favorites) did not give themselves up to his camera to expose any physical failings. And, this month, these stars, among many others, appear in Scavullo: Photographs, 50 Years , a glossy new book ($60) published by Abrams. With its emboldened images of pop culture, the book boils with celebrity so palatable you practically could spread it on a breakfast muffin. Enid Nemy, a feature writer for The New York Times , has written the introduction to the book, which also includes comments from the photographer and an illustrated chronology of his career. Songwriter Denise Rich and Helen Gurley Brown hosted a publication party for the photographer on Oct. 6. An exhibition of Mr. Scavullo’s pictures opened Oct. 9 at the Staley-Wise Gallery, 560 Broadway.
“Like everything we’ve ever done, we’ve worked hard,” Mr. Scavullo said, referring to his friend Sean Byrnes, a stylist and editor, who has worked with the photographer for more than 20 years. “We had to edit 50 years of work! When I saw the book for the first time, I got really excited. I started to cry. Then I thought, Damn-enough. Time to work on something new.”
Mr. Scavullo was born into a comfortable Staten Island family in 1929. In 1937, the family moved into a grand house on East 52nd Street. Before her marriage, his mother had been a sales clerk in the fashion department at B. Altman and wanted to become a fashion designer. His father made his fortune in a banqueting and cooking utensils business. Eventually, the elder Mr. Scavullo bought the Central Park Casino, a fashionable supper club. “Being raised a Roman Catholic and yet thinking everyone should be free to do what they want created problems,” Mr. Scavullo recalled. “Being the only one of five children who didn’t want to go into the family business created problems. When I told my father I was going to be a photographer, he didn’t trust it.” Growing up, Mr. Scavullo was enchanted by his mother’s fashion magazines. Seeing photographs of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo before Hollywood made them over inspired him to become a photographer. “I became aware that they hadn’t been born that way, that to some extent they were made into beauties. I was fascinated by the thought that you could make people attractive,” he said.
The country came to share Mr. Scavullo’s fascination with making people attractive when, in 1974, New York magazine asked him, and his team-Way Bandy for makeup, Maury Hobson for hair, Sean Byrnes as editor-to photograph Martha Mitchell, the cantankerous wife of U.S. Attorney General John Mitchell. Mrs. Mitchell and her blond beehive were famously photographed by paparazzi. With her mouth always opened wide, she was regularly mouthing off about something with her rat-a-tat-tat Southern accent. Mr. Scavullo’s photograph originally was intended for a story about “the perfect Christmas present, a Francesco Scavullo portrait,” he said. “But when they saw the portrait, the editors decided to change the story. It was now a cover: ‘The Martha Mitchell Makeover.’”
That cover, in which Mrs. Mitchell suddenly looked like Lana Turner’s even more glamorous twin sister, rather than Minnie Pearl’s poor relation, was considered a national revelation, not just of the talents of Mr. Scavullo, Way Bandy, Sean Byrnes and Maury Hobson, but of the entire transforming promises of fashion and beauty. The national obsession with style-some might say style over substance-began there. Mr. Scavullo showed there was no surface in the public arena that couldn’t be polished.
“The phone rang from all over the world,” Mr. Scavullo said. “Martha did look marvelous. You know, we fell in love with her when we did the photograph. She was charming. But she also had a mouth on her. She called me the day the magazine hit the stands and said she was very insulted; ‘I’ve always been considered a very attractive Southern woman,’ she told me.”
As a result of the Martha Mitchell cover on New York magazine, Mr. Scavullo was commissioned to do the first of four books. Scavullo on Beauty , published in 1976 by Random House, was the first of the big beauty books that are now a constant in publishing. This was followed in 1977 by Scavullo on Men . “I wanted to show that if men showed their vulnerability, they’d be much more exciting,” Mr. Scavullo said.
Meanwhile, lines formed with people who could, and would, pay-this was over 20 years ago-upward of $10,000 to be made over and photographed by Mr. Scavullo. “There wasn’t any retouching. Honestly, there wasn’t,” he promised of the Mitchell portrait. “I don’t do much retouching, actually. I like good makeup, hair, lighting and a creative stylist. With that team, I can go.”
Mr. Scavullo began taking photographs when he was a teenager. His mother bought him a camera. His first pictures didn’t look glamorous like Greta Garbo and Marlene Dietrich. So Mr. Scavullo set about to teach himself everything he could about technique. “Four-eighty Lexington was full of photography studios,” he remembered. “The Vogue magazine studio was there. I’d get jobs cleaning. You could. It was easy. There weren’t a lot of young men who wanted to be photographers in those days. You jumped from studio to studio. I became Horst’s assistant at Vogue, and by the time I was 19, I was photographing for Seventeen .” When Mr. Scavullo’s father saw his son’s credit in the magazine, he was more confident that photography could make a decent career. “He bought me this building,” Mr. Scavullo said.
Assignments followed fast and furiously for Seventeen, Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Rolling Stone, Interview, Time, Newsweek and Cosmopolitan -all those many luscious Cosmo cover girls and the infamous, nearly nude centerfold of Burt Reynolds in the 1970′s. “I have so many nudes, including Arnold Schwarzenegger. Maybe I could do a book,” he said. Throughout it all, Mr. Scavullo has fought valiantly to combat manic-depression and arthritis.
“Optimism” is a favorite word. “Well, I imagine the worst and hope for the best,” he laughed. “And I don’t look back. I don’t look ahead. I kind of just look around.”