Born: Staten Island, New York
“It’s exciting and scary my creativity peaks, my mind races, I work through the depressions photographing intensely. It’s like singing over a cold for an opera singer.”
– Francesco Scavullo
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Born January 16, 1921, in New York, NY; died of heart failure, January 6, 2004, in New York, NY. Fashion photographer. The fashion world’s Francesco Scavullo was indelibly associated with the unapologetically seductive portraits that adorned the cover of Cosmopolitan magazine for more than 30 years. The covers epitomized the “Cosmo Girl” archetype, and made Scavullo one of the most sought-after photographers in fashion journalism. His meticulously perfected lighting techniques and talent for styling a scene were so trademark that they even became an industry-insider verb, “Scavullo-ize.”
Scavullo was born on January 16, 1921, in New York. His family was living on Staten Island at the time, but later moved to Manhattan when his father’s business fortunes improved after he bought the old Central Park Casino supper club. The first photographs Scavullo took were of his sisters, which became the first examples of what was known as the “Scavulloization” of a model—he styled their hair and experimented with their makeup to make them look as glamorous as possible. “I definitely wanted to make everyone look like a movie star,” he once said, according to Independent journalist Val Williams. “I was always looking at my mother’s fashion magazines.”
Scavullo’s father wanted him enter the restaurant business. Through family connections, a job was secured for him at the posh Colony restaurant, but Scavullo proved to be such a terrible busboy that the chefs actually chased him out the door one night. He found a job working in a photography studio that did catalog work, which was more to his liking, and from there had a trial run at Vogue. One of the world’s top fashion photographers of the era, Horst P. Horst, hired him as an assistant. His first real break came when he styled a famous 1943 photograph of Lauren Bacall for Harper’s Bazaar, and the smoldering noir mood of the photo virtually launched the actress’s career, and Scavullo’s as well.
Scavullo began gaining an increasing number of magazine jobs, including a 1948 cover of Seventeen. His father, finally impressed by his son’s choice of career, bought him a four-story carriage house in Manhattan that he could use as his home and studio. From there Scavullo worked steadily, but it was his association with Cosmopolitan that proved the most lucrative of his assignments. He began shooting its covers in 1965, just after it came under a new and daring editor, Helen Gurley Brown, who turned the newsstand stalwart into a magazine for the new, income-earning, sexually liberated young woman of the era. Inside its pages, the content tackled provocative subject matter, while the full-torso shot on the cover, with a sauciness bordering on the aggressive, conveyed a frank and unapologetic sexuality.
By then Scavullo had perfected his innovative lighting techniques, some of which he had borrowed from the movie business: he used white umbrellas and muslin sheets to eradicate glare, and in close-up shots he sometimes framed faces with large sheets of cardboard, which made the skin glow. He was a favorite of many models, and in turn helped launch the careers of many new faces. During the 1970s, when fashion dissolved into a looser, less posed and more sexually provocative look, Scavullo shot thousands of pages for the likes of Vogueand Harper’s Bazaar, and worked with designers as well. The controversial photographs of a young Brooke Shields in the 1970s, which caused a stir for their sexual content, were the work of Scavullo, whom the model-actress called “Uncle Frankie.”
Scavullo both photographed and socialized with a heady A-list of celebrities in his day, including Andy Warhol and the Studio 54 crowd. He did formal portraits and also specialized in enamel-on-canvas photo silkscreens. There were several gallery shows of his work over the years, and he wrote a number of lushly illustrated tomes. Yet behind the scenes, Scavullo suffered from manic depression, which went undiagnosed until the early 1980s. He was a consummate professional on the job, however, rarely displaying a bad temper with his clients, who recalled him as soothing and genial, but he was known to walk out of a shoot at times if he was perturbed.
Scavullo was briefly married in the 1950s, but met his partner, Sean M. Byrnes, when he hired him as a stylist in 1972. Though he had suffered from heart problems over the years, Scavullo was still working on the day he died, readying for an assignment. He died of heart failure at his Manhattan home on January 6, 2004, at the age of 82. He later said that his manic depression had actually helped his career, the echo of many creative types.