When the coronavirus pandemic started, the Elgorts were – the photographer Arthur; his wife Grethe Barrett Holby; her daughter Sophie with her husband and their 3 year old daughter; and their sons Warren and Ansel – huddled together in their 40-year-old family home on Long Island.
To pass the time, Sophie, 35 and a photographer, began her 81 year old father who made a name for himself by taking fashion photography from the studio to the streets, following the stories behind some of his most iconic images .
He told her about Kate Moss, who danced on a table in the Brasserie Lipp, Stella Tennant, who dived fully clothed in a pool and the Rolling Stones blow smoke into each other’s air while they were filming “Tattoo You”. All of this became part of what soon became an Instagram TV series called Behind the Lens With Arthur Elgort.
Part family history, part relationship research and part photo history, the discussion is still strong, even if the Elgorts are no longer quarantined under one roof. In honor of Father’s Day, Sophie and Arthur agreed to reveal what happens when two photographers point the lens at themselves.
Sophie It started in early autumn. Things were really, really shut down and we didn’t see anyone so it was something we could look forward to having this project. We did it every Sunday for a month or two, but now it’s more like every two weeks. We just got a small tripod so we could hook up the iPhone.
Arthur We’d never worked together before, but now we’re stuck together. It turned out that she is a very good interviewer. I told her to have her own show on TV.
Sophie I can get these stories out of him. My father had a stroke about 10 years ago and had to learn to speak from scratch.
Arthur It took two years. Some people enjoyed the quiet. They thought I talked too much. But I have never forgotten to take photos.
When she was in school I thought Sophie was going to be a doctor and I said, “This is a tough job, they can call you at night, you should think about taking pictures.” I was hoping one of you could do it.
Sophie He named my brother Ansel after Ansel Adams because he said, “I have another one, maybe he’ll be a photographer.”
Arthur Instead, he’s crazy: he’s an actor. You and Warren both have something to do with a camera – he’s a director. But I gave you your first camera. I gave you more than one.
Sophie I learned by watching.
Arthur I always bought three of everything: Sophie and Warren for myself. You have a Rolleiflex. And then a Leica.
Sophie When we went to camp in the summer, dad would give us little point-and-shoots of movies. He always said to put the strap on. We knew how to invite movie. Then we gave him the film and he had it developed and did a series of double images and said, âGive the person one and keep one for yourself. Anything you don’t like, tear it up. âThis is his favorite thing to do: If he’s taking a group photo and someone is on the edge and he thinks they’re not looking good, tear them off!
Arthur People get upset: âYou just tore me out of the picture!â But I’m really doing them a favor.
Sophie Once I was walking with my school on the street – we always had to go to the school chapel – and dad was in the neighborhood taking pictures of us, me and my friends, and the teachers said, âSorry! You can’t take pictures of these young girls. “I thought,” This is my dad. ” I was never aware of it. I grew up with a camera in my face the whole time. At breakfast in pajamas. He actually has a book about taking photos of your children.
Arthur I have 11 books, but this one is called How to Shoot Your Kids, which is a weird name.
Sophie One of your favorite things to do in general is taking photos. He always has a camera with him. My pastime has always been dressing up people, including my brothers. I used to put my clothes on for Warren.
Arthur Warren was very pretty.
Sophie I’ve been to his studio a lot. As a child, I enjoyed working on the shoot. 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 make music. I grew up with the classical piano. A few years ago he encouraged me to play the guitar. Now I take a lesson every week.
Arthur I learned the saxophone when I was around 20. I used to be a Carnegie Hall usher. I saw Leonard Bernstein. He had just come back from Russia and was playing a Shostakovich symphony. I went to Hunter College because it was free. About three years ago they gave me an honorary doctorate and gave me my testimonial, and I had all the C’s and D’s except art. I knew then what I was going to be. I started out as a painter, but I was a bad copy of Franz Kline. I couldn’t draw. But I thought, “If I had a camera, I could capture something.” So I became a photographer.
Sophie I became a photographer because shortly after graduating from Brown, friends of mine started a bespoke vintage ecommerce company and needed pictures. Since I always took pictures for fun, they said, “We’ll give you some clothes for free if you take our pictures for our first lookbook.”
Arthur Then she called me and said, “I have this job, but I have no idea about photography.” And I said, “I’ll teach you in three easy lessons.”
Sophie Then people asked me to do other jobs and then I just did. I wanted to make sure I was finding my own style and not copying what Dad was doing.
Arthur My first job was at Mademoiselle, which was very cool back then. Then Alex Liberman said, âYou are too good. You’re better than my Vogue magazine. âSo I said,â I’ll do Vogue instead, âand he said,â That’s a good idea. âIt worked. Now magazines are awful. If you look at Vogue right now, it’s awful.
Sophie Maybe it’s just different.
Arthur No it is bad. Everything is wrong. You used to get a lot of money. Now you get $ 100 instead of $ 500,000. There used to be contracts. I could buy this house. The studio. You don’t earn any more money in the editorial office. Maybe in ads. Sophie has more clients than me. I don’t get clients like you.
Sophie I work with De Beers and Dad is jealous of it. He really stuck to it. They sent me to Botswana and he said, “How come I didn’t come with you?”
When I started there were a lot of younger women photographers coming out. I don’t know if it correlates directly with the #MeToo movement. But I think that got more people thinking 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 a friendship develops with the person you are photographing. Dad always asks a million questions when he’s behind the lens.
Arthur It relaxes the models. Paulina likes her piano, so I play classical music for her. Jay-Z brings a guy with her. He’s a bodyguard, a chauffeur, everything. BeyoncÃ© brings 50 people. Jay-Z also tells you how much time you have: You have an hour, get it, then I have to go. Very nice person. BeyoncÃ© lets you have the time you need.
Sophie Papa always made time for us. He always made breakfast for us. When he wasn’t out, he was home for dinner by 6 p.m. He made us packed lunches. On the weekends he warmed up baked beans and said, “Lunch is served!”
Arthur Ansel loved baked beans. You, Warren, Ansel were not bad subjects. Every year on Mother’s Day, I gave my wife pictures. I would do a collage – it has to be 35. I believe in mother’s day, but I don’t believe in father’s day. I think it’s a bad day
Sophie But he likes fancy socks.
Arthur What I would like to have now is a Corvette. Nobody will give it to me. But I’m glad you didn’t become a doctor.