On Photography: Part One

My very first camera was something my father bought me when I went on a school trip to Switzerland when I was twelve. It was quite a long time ago so it was beautiful, but not terribly sophisticated or expensive. I had no idea how to use it. It was a classic black and white film camera, you gave it to the drugstore, and they processed and printed postcard-size pictures. My biggest regret in life would be not documenting everything I experienced, the way Jacques Henri Lartigue did from the age of five. I would have loved to have had an iPhone fifty years before anyone else did because I have so many memories of such extraordinary things, especially when I started working at René of Mayfair.

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

Twiggy photographed by Barry Lategan in 1966

I befriended the photographers, that’s what I remember. My favorite was Barry Lategan, a South African who came to London and eventually became one of the top Vogue photographers, specializing in beauty and hair, and he was good at fashion too. He took those iconic images of Twiggy that helped launch her career. He and Leonard of Mayfair worked together frequently, and I just loved his photography.

I got to work with him once when I was quite young, maybe 20, and I was hopelessly terrified to actually be in a studio with Barry Lategan. I was working for Elizabeth Arden, and they gave me a piece of paper and told me to go to this studio in Chelsea to do hair for a photoshoot. So I got there and it’s filled with people: a famous makeup artist, Barry (who I don’t think even said hello), three statuesque models, and then there’s me, with my little bag of tricks. At lunchtime the photo assistants would set up a ten-foot long piece of wood over a trellis table, and all this food came out. I had never seen food like this before. It made a deep impression on me. My ambition was to work with Barry in his studio more often, but it didn’t happen. I left England in 1972 to move to South Africa.

I started doing hair for one of the best fashion photographers in South Africa, Georgina Karvellis. She would send a girl in, often her girlfriend Marge, with a tear sheet from American Vogue. I would do the hair, and they’d jump in a car and go to the studio without me – and yet, amazingly enough, the hair looked pretty fantastic in the photos. I had a friend, Alan, who was a yoga teacher and a photographer, and he had a studio in his house where we used to do pictures for Bumble.

I moved to New York in 1977, and then Barry moved to New York around 1978 – he fell in love with someone, that happened a lot. I used to work quite a bit for Mademoiselle magazine, where the beauty editor was very supportive of Bumble and I was comfortable with her. I overheard her talking about doing a beauty story with Barry Lategan, so I asked to do the hair. The studio was in the West Village, I still walk by it sometimes. He didn’t remember I was the same little guy from London.

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

Michael cutting Aldo Coppola’s hair

I started talking to Barry about living in South Africa, and it turned out he knew my first wife Di, because she’d been a model there. We all had dinner together a few times. He asked if I’d like to come to Rome and shoot the collections with him for Italian Vogue. I said yes, I’d like that very much.

In those days Rome was the fashion capital of Italy, and had fashion shows twice a year. There were two studios, with Barry and I in one, and David Bailey with the legendary Italian hairdresser Aldo Coppola in the other. They actually asked me if I’d cut Aldo Coppola’s hair, that was kind of a thrill. We’d start getting the models ready and photographing them at 6pm, and it would go on until about 4 o’clock in the morning. It was a great experience.

I did a few more shoots with Barry. There was one stunning story that we shot in Fort Lauderdale, with ten pages of saturated blue skies and colors. (This was where I first heard the name Steve Hiett, because people kept asking if it was inspired by his work.) I also did a few ad campaigns with him. But I realized that if I was going to make Bumble a success, I couldn’t be out of the salon so often. I stopped dreaming about being an editorial hairdresser at that point.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

Barry Lategan for Vogue Italia. Hair by Michael Gordon. Styling by Nicoletta Santoro.

I started taking photos for myself around the early ‘80s, when my daughter Sian was maybe three or four. I used to take her and her big sister Heather away once or twice a year on vacation, just the three of us. I took pictures of the girls at the beach, and they came out well. I’d always been around photographers, and one day I just knew how to take a picture.

Eventually I moved from photographing kids to photographing models. In 1985, we had moved Bumble to the new location on 56th Street. On the top floor of the building was a model agency called Zoli, one of the top agencies at the time. They often sent their new girls downstairs to Bumble to ask us to make their hair different, to give them a look. That’s where I met Stacy Williams, from Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. It’s common that if you’re a model with a photographer boyfriend, they usually take the best photos of you, because there’s trust and intimacy between you. Stacy’s friends started asking for pictures, so we had a steady stream of girls that wanted to test at Bumble.

I got so much information about photography just from watching talented people on set. I was never formally trained as a photographer. There were only four things you could control on a camera, which did a lot: the f-stop, the speed of the film, the aperture opening, and the shutter speed. Eventually it just clicked for me. Photography must have been just occupying my brain until suddenly I figured out how to do it. I was also building a library of images from English Vogue, American Vogue, Italian Vogue, Avedon and Penn and everyone I’d worked with – my eye was becoming more sophisticated.

Where Credit is Due

Hedi Slimane for Celine SS19; Men’s hair by  Didier Malige

Hedi Slimane for Celine SS19; Men’s hair by Didier Malige

Fashion Month (or as I call it, “Fashion Show Woopty-Doo Time”) has come and gone again, and I’d like to take this opportunity to reflect on something that has bothered me for a very long time. As far as hair goes, a fashion show standout for me has been Hedi Slimane for Celine. When he debuted his first collection in September, I immediately noticed the hair and wanted to know who did it. Unfortunately, it unreasonably difficult to find, and only after several minutes of searching was it revealed that this hair was the work of Didier Malige and Esther Langham. After some more digging, I came across a piece on Vogue.com about the “radical” styles featured in the show, in which there was literally no mention of a hairstylist. I find that in many of the large fashion publications, the credits will sooner list where the models got their morning coffee, or what town they’re from in Russia, than who did their hair. This is near the top of my list of pet peeves, something I find so disrespectful and upsetting. In my imaginary life as a superhero, I picture myself as a Hair Defender, a protector of the unrecognized hair geniuses of the world. And so in my real life, uncredited hair genius is what motivates me to “fly around” and try to bring some justice to this community. So, I’m using this as my platform to bitch and moan, in an attempt to inspire even one other person to bitch and moan along with me.

Somewhere in my brain, it makes sense that print magazines are meeting their demise because they’ve refused to embrace the creativity of people like hairdressers, and have instead gone full speed in the opposite direction. Fashion magazines used to be canvasses for designers, stylists, makeup artists, and hairdressers’ art. They used to be about inspiration, and now I’m not so sure what they’re about. It even used to be common practice to save your magazines, because you wanted to always remember Helena Christensen on the white horse, or Arthur Elgort’s magical photos. In those days, all of the really groundbreaking photographers worked in teams. Elgort’s hair counterpart was Christiaan, who understood how he took pictures and calibrated the hair to fit. Richard Avedon and Ara Gallant made magic. Craig McDean’s team was Pat McGrath and Eugene Souleiman. Guido, who now stands alone as a hair hero, didn’t always work solo. He was part of the trio comprised of David Sims and Diane Kendal, who were so good together that they were essentially a package deal. There was a unique creative product that flowed from these artistic partnerships; an alchemy. Hairdressers were treated as an integral part of the creative process of fashion. It saddens me to think how different things are today.

Photo by Richard Avedon, Hair by  Ara Gallant

Photo by Richard Avedon, Hair by Ara Gallant

Photo by David Sims, Hair by  Guido Palau

Photo by David Sims, Hair by Guido Palau

I’m sure there are many reasons why the print magazine is dying, most of which I presume have to do with social media and the digital publication. But I truly feel that its decline was in no small part caused by making magazines that were less special, less about storytelling, and less appreciative of the creative genius of the people behind the scenes. Magazines, and often their online counterparts, have lessened the importance of the team effort it takes to create a look, and the hairdresser has quickly become an afterthought. Let’s not forget that when hairdressers create editorial work, they aren’t paid very much at all. They rely on promised credit as payment. It’s unfortunate that payment from print magazines often arrives in the form of a minuscule credit, in illegible font, stuffed in the crease between pages, all but invisible to the reader, and sometimes completely invisible altogether. If I had the power to change how things are done, I’d suggest lots of ideas for full-blown hair stories to all the major fashion magazines. Makeup artists and hairdressers wouldn’t be afterthoughts. They’d be the stars. I’d help magazines provide a better platform for the brilliant women and black hairdressers that are so often unappreciated, like Sandy Hullett, Holli Smith, Lacy Redway, Esther Langham, Victoria Hunter, Jawara, and Cyndia Harvey. I would help publications generate more original content that celebrates interesting, groundbreaking hair, which could very easily be turned into beautiful digital content. And for God’s sake, if I were to write an article all about the hair created for a show, I would make sure I credited the hairdressers responsible in big, bold letters. We’ve certainly a come a long way in regarding hairdressing as an art, but I still feel as though many publications have taken steps backward. Great hairdressing really can be radical. Let’s credit it radically.

*As I was writing this post, I found a great article from Forbes that discusses the issue of gender inequality in hairdressing. You can read it here.

Steve Hiett – A Special Kind of Genius

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One of my closest friends and a person that I believe to be a practical genius in the world of image, photography, and graphic design, is named Steve Hiett. He is renowned for his wholly unique photography, which has been largely copied and still is to this day. As much as I love his photography, I’m infinitely more impressed by his eye for design, and I’m very lucky to have had his help on quite a few of my own projects. Typically, in one of our working sessions, I’ll ask Steve if he can do the layout for something. Very soon after he starts working, he turns it into something that makes me believe he has access to a creative realm that most other people do not. Over the years, Steve became a crucial contributor to several passion projects of mine such as Hair Heroes, Vidal Sassoon: The Movie, Vidal Sassoon: How One Man Changed the World with a Pair of Scissors, and current ventures not yet launched. More than anything, Steve has educated me on how integral good design is to the identity and success of a brand. I am so grateful to have had the opportunity to be inspired by him.

Most people who have any Apple product or are a fan of Steve Jobs are familiar with how inspired he was by the typography and calligraphy classes he audited at Reed College. What he took away from these classes hugely informed Apple’s groundbreaking visual language, and contributed to the brand’s success. Steve Hiett did for me what Steve Jobs did for Apple. His designs inspired me to do better hair, create better books, give better interviews. He elevated my work, so much so that everything I made became more important when Steve was a part of it. Recently, I was delighted to find out that (what I believe to be) the world’s best fashion retail institution, 10 Corso Como, is exhibiting Steve’s work in their gallery space in New York. Two weeks ago, I attended the launch of the exhibit, which also featured his last book, Beyond Blonde. I urge you all to buy a copy if you’re able. It’s so inspiring and so interesting and so Steve, and he reveals more of himself in this book’s introduction than he has in any of his other projects.

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If you are anywhere near the New York area in the next few weeks, I assure you that 10 Corso Como and their exhibit of Steve’s work is well worth a visit.  As someone who is familiar with so much of his art, I still found myself in awe of what was on display. A standout for me was a collection of Steve’s Polaroids; I want them all. There’s also a silent projection of a music video Steve directed, and it is truly so visually brilliant. Hopefully, Steve and I will continue to work together, and I’ve got lots of ideas for things I’d like to create with him. Just thinking about what he’ll come up with excites me. Steve is a special kind of genius, and I highly suggest you experience it for yourself, if you can.


Steve Hiett: Beyond Blonde will be on display at 10 Corso Como, 1 Fulton St, New York, NY 10038, until April 21 2019, Monday to Saturday 11:00 - 7:00, and Sunday 12:00 - 6:00.