Phyllis Posnick, American Vogue’s Executive Fashion Editor, met with Beauty Papers to deconstruct her ground-breaking and powerfully provocative work, following the release of her book ‘Stopper’; a remarkable collection of images created with the likes of Irving Penn, Helmut Newton and Steven Klein.
INTERVIEW MAXINE LEONARD
Maxine Leonard: The incredible and visually arresting imagery in Stoppers defines your career – a career that spans three decades. How did you start at American Vogue?
Phyllis Posnick: I began my career at British Vogue as assistant to Sheila Wetton. When I decided to move back to the States I was very lucky. There was a position waiting for me at American Vogue.
Stoppers showcases some of the most iconic beauty imagery. How did you come up with the title?
Alexander Liberman, the late, legendary editorial director of Condé Nast, described Irving Penn’s photographs as “stoppers” – photographs that were memorable and made the reader stop to look. Since Penn was such an important part of my life and there were so many of his pictures in the book, I called it Stoppers.
Are there certain challenges you face with having just one or two editorial pages?
Definitely! My job is to create single images that aren’t literal illustrations of the article’s theme, they’re fantasy or playful, intended to catch the reader’s eye. My challenge is to get readers to stop flipping through the issue, to look at the picture and want to read.
What I find staggering when I look at the imagery are the many wonderful ways you have illustrated beauty and health. How do you go beyond the subject?
It’s something I learned from Penn. It’s easy to illustrate a subject in a literal way. He never did that. For instance, to illustrate a piece on microblading eyebrows, Tim Walker did a photo of the potential risks. A mistake! The model’s unmatched eyebrows are in the middle of her forehead.
There’s a lot of humour in your work.
Humour is helpful, especially when we’re working with a product idea that’s impossible to illustrate, like fragrance or invisible braces. Anna [Wintour] has a very good sense of humour. She responds to photographs that surprise and encourages me to do them.
Steven Klein has been quoted as saying that you are “relentless in pursuing an idea”. How do you overcome the challenges?
If I ask him to do a shoot that he’s not sure he wants to do, I won’t give up until I know we’ve explored every possibility. When we’re on the shoot, I’ll do everything I can to get a memorable image. Steven is relentless, Penn was relentless, Tim Walker is relentless, Julian d’Ys, the hairdresser, is relentless. We’re all relentless. We all want our own way. That’s a good thing because it pushes everyone to be sharper, better and more focused.
How do you get someone to push themselves further creatively?
I try to remove creative boundaries that people bring to Vogue shoots and get them excited about the picture that we’re creating. They know what Vogue does and doesn’t like. I say none of that matters, let’s go for a surprising picture. If I’m worried about the direction of the shoot, I’ll say so.
How do you think beauty has changed over the years?
I’m not sure beauty has changed, but the culture has changed, the look of beauty has changed,
fashion has changed. Women look different from the way they did even five years ago.
You use Karlie Kloss a lot. Is she your muse?
She’s fantastic. She makes my job easier. She perfectly understands how she looks and what’s exactly right for our pictures and she moves like a dream. Most top models do, but Karlie is special. The other thing is, Karlie has a sense of humour, which is essential when we do some of our crazier shoots.
I love the humour in the images. One of my favourites is the chicken wearing high heels, shot by Helmut Newton. How did you come to create this iconic image?
I knew Helmut loved to photograph chickens. Our food writer was doing an article about fried chicken so I called and asked Helmut if he had any ideas. There was only a slight pause before he said: “I’ve always wanted to photograph a chicken wearing high heels.” Of course he did. We got the shoes from the doll museum in Paris and when I arrived at his apartment, his assistant took me to Helmut’s local butcher to try the shoes on chickens to be sure they were the right fit. Can you imagine! I got two chickens with the best legs.
Do you think editorial has a social responsibility?
Yes, I do. We address issues in several ways; in articles, in fashion narratives, in the point of view of a single photo illustration. Italian Vogue has done extraordinary social commentary for years.
"We’re in a time of such fast fashion and fast images. Everything is in the moment. I still believe people want to dream. Fantasy is still appealing."
It’s mind-blowing that you have worked on over 400 images with Mr Penn. How did your working relationship begin?
We met when I was assistant to Babs Simpson, the Vogue editor for his most iconic shoots in the 1950s and 60s. When Anna came to Vogue, she wanted Penn pictures in every issue. At the time he was using strobe light. I asked if he would consider shooting with available light the way he did in the 50s. He said: “Yes, if you can find the same studio I used then.” We found one just like it, with north light that he loved, dirty skylights. He returned to the softer, more romantic look of his early work.
You’ve spoken of Mr Penn prepping with drawings and how you learned to talk in a visual language. How do you do this?
PP: If we need an illustration for new moisturisers, it isn’t inspiring to say: “We’re doing an article on new moisturisers, do you have any ideas?” I needed to describe the products – their purpose, colour, texture – in a visual way. We’d talk and he would send sketches of his ideas. It’s similar with Tim Walker or with Steven Klein. It’s a process.
A lot of people have gone back to film and I think there’s such a beauty to that. I personally get very frustrated on set when the photographer suggests fixing it later after the shoot. I want to fix it there and then because that’s my job or you can end up with unexpected surprises.
I don’t like those surprises either. I’m old school and I want to see the real photograph. Of course, some retouching or colour adjusting is fine but there are some photographers who compose their final image after the shoot.
Do you draw inspiration from the world at large in terms of beauty and modern technology?
I draw inspiration from everything: theatre, art, videos, movies, Instagram, everywhere. I don’t use references or mood boards. If a photographer sees mood boards, it creates boundaries and establishes direction too early in the process.
What advice can you give me in my pursuit with Beauty Papers?
We’re in a time of such fast fashion and fast images. Everything is in the moment. I still believe people want to dream. Fantasy is still appealing. It’s one reason that I think readers respond to the photographs that we do. I don’t know about giving you advice.
I’ll take anything you’ve got at this stage, Phyllis.
Be relentless in what you believe in. Have fun. See what’s happening in the world around you. Always keep an open mind. I’m still learning.