When the coronavirus pandemic began, the Elgorts — photographer Arthur; his wife, Grethe Barrett Holby; their daughter, Sophie, with her husband and 3-year-old daughter; and their sons, Warren and Ansel – hunkered down together in their 40-year-old family home on Long Island.
To pass the time, Sophie, 35 and also a photographer, started asking her father, who is 81 and has made a name for himself taking fashion photography from the studio to the streets, about the stories behind some of his most famous pictures.
He told her about Kate Moss dancing on a table at Brasserie Lipp, Stella Tennant diving fully clothed into a swimming pool and the Rolling Stones blowing smoke while doing “Tattoo You”. It all became part of what quickly turned into an Instagram TV series, “Behind the Lens with Arthur Elgort.”
Part family lore, part relationship study, and part photographic history, the conversation is still going strong, even though the Elgorts are no longer quarantined under one roof. In honor of Father’s Day, Sophie and Arthur have agreed to reveal what happens when a couple of photographers turn the lens on themselves.
Sophia It started in early fall. Things were really, really closed and we weren’t seeing anyone, so having this project was something to look forward to. For a month or two we did it every Sunday, but now it’s more like every two weeks. We just have a little tripod to hook up the iPhone.
arthur We had never worked together before, but now we are stuck with each other. It turned out that she is a very good interviewer. I told her she should have her own TV show.
Sophia I can get those stories out of him. My dad had a stroke about 10 years ago and had to completely relearn how to speak.
arthur It took two years. Some people liked the quiet. They thought I was talking too much. But I never forgot photography.
When she was at school, I thought Sophie would be a doctor, and I said to her, “It’s a hard job to do, they can call you at night, you should think about photography. I was hoping one of you could.
Sophia He named my brother Ansel Ansel Adams because he said, “I’ve got one more, maybe he’ll become a photographer.”
arthur Instead, he’s crazy: he’s an actor. You and Warren have both become something to do with a camera – he’s a director. But I gave you your first camera. I gave you more than one.
Sophia I learned by watching.
arthur I always bought three of everything: for me, Sophie and Warren. You have a Rolleiflex. And then a Leica.
Sophia When we went to camp in the summer, Dad would give us little shots with film. He always said to put the strap on. We knew how to load the film. Then we would give him the film, and he would develop it and play a game of doubles and say, “Give one to the person and keep one for yourself.” Anything you don’t like, tear it up. It’s his favorite thing: if he’s taking a group photo, and there’s someone on the edge and he doesn’t think he looks good, rip him off!
arthur People get angry: “You just ripped me out of the picture! But really, I’m doing them a favor.
Sophia One time I was walking down the street with my school – we had to go to the school chapel – and dad was around and taking pictures of me and my friends and the teachers were like, “EXCUSE ME! You don’t you can’t photograph these young girls. I was like, “He’s my dad. I’ve never been embarrassed about it. I grew up with a camera in my face all the time. At breakfast in my pajamas. He actually has a book on photographing your kids.
arthur I have 11 books, but this one is called “How to Shoot Your Kids”, which is a funny name.
Sophia One of your favorite hobbies in general is taking pictures. He always has a camera. My hobby was always dressing people up, including my brothers. I used to dress Warren in my clothes.
arthur Warren was very pretty.
Sophia I used to go to his studio a lot. I liked to be part of film sets when I was a child. I would be dropped off after school. He still has the same studio in SoHo, and there was a lot of music. He always encouraged us to play music. I grew up playing classical piano. A few years ago he encouraged me to play the guitar. Now I take a lesson every week.
arthur I learned the sax when I was around 20 years old. I was an usher at Carnegie Hall. I saw Leonard Bernstein. He had just come back from Russia and he was playing a symphony by Shostakovich. I went to school at Hunter College because it was free. About three years ago, they gave me an honorary doctorate and gave me my transcript, and I had all the Cs and Ds except in art. That’s when I knew what I was going to become. I started as a painter, but I was a poor copy of Franz Kline. I didn’t know how to draw. But I thought, “If I had a camera, I could capture something.” So I became a photographer.
Sophia I became a photographer because shortly after graduating from Brown, friends of mine were doing a custom vintage e-commerce business and they needed photos. Since I was always taking photos for fun, they said, “We’ll give you clothes for free if you take our photos for our first look book.
arthur Then she called me and said, “I have this job, but I don’t know anything about photography. And I said, “I’m going to teach you three easy lessons.”
Sophia Then people asked me to do other jobs, and then I just did it. I wanted to make sure I found my own style and didn’t copy what dad was doing.
arthur My first job was at Mademoiselle, which was very cool at the time. Then Alex Liberman said, “You’re too good. You are better than my Vogue magazine. So I said, “I’m going to do Vogue instead,” and he said, “That’s a good idea. It worked. Now the magazines are terrible. If you look at Vogue now, it’s terrible.
Sophia Maybe it’s just different.
arthur No, it’s bad. Everything is false. You used to make a lot of money. Now you get $100 instead of $500,000. Before, there were contracts. I could buy this house. The studio. You no longer make money in the editorial. Maybe in ads. Sophie has more clients than me. I don’t have clients like you.
Sophia I work with De Beers, and Dad is jealous. He’s really hooked on that. They sent me to Botswana, and he said, “How come I couldn’t go?
A ton of young female photographers were coming when I started. I don’t know if it’s directly related to the #MeToo movement. But I think it made more people think that this could be an industry that we could get into and be supported. As for the male gaze versus the female gaze, I think it differs from person to person. But there is a friendship that forms with the person you are photographing. Dad always asks a million questions when he’s behind the lens.
Arthurr It relaxes the models. Paulina loves her piano, so I play classical music for her. Jay-Z brings a guy with him. He’s a bodyguard, a driver, everything. Beyoncé brings 50 people. Jay-Z also tells you how much time you have: you have an hour, take it, then I have to go. Very nice person. Beyoncé lets you have the time you need.
Sophia Dad always made time for us. He always cooked breakfast for us. If he wasn’t traveling, he’d come home at 6 p.m. for dinner. He packed lunch bags for us. On weekends, he would heat up baked beans and say, “Lunch is served!”
arthur Ansel loved baked beans. You, Warren, Ansel weren’t bad subjects. Every year for Mother’s Day I offered photos to my wife. I’ll make a collage—there must be 35 of them. I believe in Mother’s Day, but I don’t believe in Father’s Day. I think it’s a fake day.
Sophia But he likes fancy socks.
arthur What I want now is a Corvette. No one is going to give it to me. But I’m glad you didn’t become a doctor.