Photographer Scavullo's Secrets: Why Raquel Was a Bust, What's So Great About Lauren & Margaux
01/10/1977 at 01:00 AM EST
"Beautiful...beautiful...faaabulous...beautiful like that," praises Francesco Scavullo, 47, his litany an accompaniment to the whirring of his Hasselblad camera as he photographs yet another model, movie star or celeb in the all-white studio of his Manhattan townhouse. Probably the quintessential cover portrait photographer of the '70s, Scavullo has seen his work published in many magazines, from PEOPLE to Rolling Stone. But he is best known for his pictures of beautiful women—primarily his covers for Vogue and Cosmopolitan (100 of the latter since 1965).
Scavullo's fascination with beautiful women began as a young camera buff in Staten Island, New York. He would make up his two sisters "to look like Dorothy Lamour," then photograph them. He made his reputation as a fashion photographer in the late 1940s with covers for Seventeen. Married in 1955 to one of his models, Carol McCallson, he is divorced and now lives alone in quarters over his studio.
"Making women look their best is what I like to do," says Scavullo. He has put together a portrait book of 59 of his favorites, titled Scavullo on Beauty (Random House, $15)—a subject on which he spoke at length with Lee Wohlfert of PEOPLE.
How do you define beauty?
A beauty is someone who really understands herself, who knows what she looks like, accepts it and knows what to do with it. Acceptance is very important. That's why I love Cher. She knows how to make herself up, what to wear, how to move.
What makes a woman photogenic?
Basically, it's the way the light hits her face and just drips off it. I used to shoot only in daylight; now I shoot only with a strobe. A photogenic model for me is someone whose face takes the strobe and, equally important, knows how to move.
How do you get a model to give you the picture you're after?
I talk. I never stop talking. I coax and coax—and you can see the progression. It's amazing. Models who know me of course can turn it on. But the others change as I start to talk—inside they change, because they feel good. I don't ever let them sit still and pose. That builds nervousness and tension, which shows on the face.
What if your technique doesn't work?
Oh, it's such a drag, so awful, so depressing. I wish I could take a drug, a drink, to get things off the ground. But it's just chemistry between people.
For a decade you have shot nearly every Cosmopolitan cover. How do you achieve the Cosmo image?
The Cosmo Girl is a fantasy—obviously not the average girl walking down the street. Editor Helen Gurley Brown pretty much lets me do my thing, but there are some requirements. We must show bosoms—but not totally bare. We used to squeeze bosoms together in a sort of French push-up, but that's old-fashioned. Now we just put 'em in a revealing dress and hope something happens. And the models have to look straight at the camera to make eye contact at the newsstand. There's not much flexibility, except for a change of face, hair, dress, mood. So they all look a bit alike.
Does a magazine cover girl influence the average woman on how she wants to look herself?
Absolutely. Cover girls are the stars today. There are always girls that other girls want to look at. It used to be Harlow, Monroe. Now there are too few female movie stars around to generate excitement, except for Faye Dunaway, Barbra, Liza, Cher. Today it's the cover girl.
When did you begin photographing cover girls?
I started shooting teenagers for Seventeen, and I got into trouble with the editors in the early '50s. I used Vaseline on their lips instead of lipstick, and I loved straight hair. Toni home permanents were a major advertiser, and the editors were afraid Toni would pull out its advertising.
How has the standard of beauty changed since then?
Then there was just one look. Now no one has to look like Cybill Shepherd one season and a Latin beauty the next. Now there are all kinds—long, tall, round, short. Years ago Barbra Streisand would have had a nose job, Bette Midler would have been in trouble. In '77 you can have Lauren Hutton, Anjelica Huston and Streisand—they're all beauties.
Who has the most style now?
The blacks—they blow me out, they have such a sense of style, flashing in here with a derby, a marvelous cape. If anything's coming in for next year, it's blacks. They are very modern, very marvelous. Talk about exotic!
What accounts for the change?
With the '60s, people let go. You had the hippies, long hair, gypsy clothes, a break with '50s sterility. Models were over-made-up, wearing laced-up sandals, crazy bows in the hair. Then Lauren Hutton opened up the '70s and became the way women should look—scrubbed, sexy, intelligent, real.
By your definition, who are some of your favorite beauties?
Well, Gloria Vanderbilt. I love the way she goes on looking great, because she knows herself very well. I've been watching her since she was 19. She never looks old-fashioned; she's always kept her own style. And right now Barbra Streisand is my love. She could have felt like an ugly duckling, but she's smart and she's positive. She worked with herself—as she is. When she sat for me she wanted to do her own makeup, so we compromised. We did it the first day, she did it the second. She's so smart! She picked up all kinds of tricks to use the second day.
What about men—do you photograph them differently?
It's a totally different trip. I tell them to wear what they like; we go right into the studio and talk. I want to get them relaxed, off guard. Men are not as sensitive. And everything is simpler. Of course, if I'm doing a rock star, like Peter Frampton, I have to have a hairdresser and a makeup artist.
How close do you feel to your models?
They're like everything to me, my daughters, my friends and sometimes my lovers. But it's not like Blow-Up, where we're rolling all over the no-seam paper and making out. A lot have boyfriends or are married. It's an intimate experience in the studio, but it doesn't mean instant sexual attraction. It could just be an affair of the head.
What are some of the tricks of your art?
First, I prefer to work in my studio. All distractions are gone. And I must have music. I can't work without it, the studio seems like a tomb. Usually I play black soul, which is very "up"—not rock, which can be irritating. Some people bring their own music. Gloria Vanderbilt brought a Judy Holliday album one time. Barbara Walters, the minute she walks in, says, "Where's the music?"
What advice would you give to a young woman who wanted to be a model?
I'd tell her to go to a modeling agency, not a modeling school, unless she wants to throw money away. You don't become a model through a school. Most agencies have a day when they do see new girls and do not charge a fee for that. Don't go to see a photographer; it won't do you any good. An agency will send you to a photographer for pictures, and if they see something there they'll help you develop it. They expect to train a girl—they don't expect her to be perfect.
Who was your worst subject to photograph—and your best?
Raquel Welch was the most difficult. We just didn't hit it off then. It was a bummer; the pictures were never used. The best was Janis Joplin. She walked in the door—and she was right there. We didn't put any more makeup on her at all, just walked her into the studio—and pow! The place was electric.
What's special about a Scavullo photograph?
I like to think my pictures have a personality, a contemporary look, sex appeal. My aim is to make people look very good—not by tricks, but by lighting and understanding women, knowing what makeup they should have, what hairstylist, and bringing out their best in the studio. I've always been interested in the total look of a woman. If there's something wrong I can usually tell. They usually stick with my advice and are happy for it.
Does that make you an authority on how women want to look?
I know what would make them look better for my eyes, and I hope for themselves, their friends, their lovers. And my track record's pretty good.
What is your role as a photographer?
Women need more direction. Hollywood was a factory in the '20s and '30s. They told actresses what to do and developed them slowly. They didn't get Dietrich overnight. I like to develop people—glorify them. We used to have the Gibson Girls, the Goldwyn Girls. Someday I hope they'll talk about the Scavullo Girls!