Fashion and celebrity photographer Francesco Scavullo is most known for his portraits of pop culture icons like Donna Summer, Madonna, Andy Warhol, Kate Moss, Mick Jagger and others. Scavullo often courted controversy as seen in his photographs of a young Brooke Shields or a nude Burt Reynolds. His work amped the sensuality of fashion photography, and over the course of Scavullo’s thirty-year relationship with ‘Cosmopolitan’ magazine, he created the hyper-sexual ‘Cosmo girl’ phenomenon.
Scavullo was born on January 16, 1921, in Staten Island but spent his childhood in Manhattan after his father bought a supper club. He spent much of younger years obsessing over fashion on Fifth Avenue in the pages of fashion magazines. He used his father’s camera to photograph his sisters, often transforming them into models through the glamorous style of Hollywood.
As a teen, Scavullo landed his professional job photographing cruise ship travellers, who happened to include movie star Carmen Miranda. He next helped photographer Louise Dahl-Wolfe in lighting Lauren Bacall’s first ever photo shoot, which made the cover for ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ in 1943.
In 1945, Scavullo worked in a studio producing fashion catalogues but soon moved onto Vogue. He worked under iconic fashion photographers Cecil Beaton and John Rawlings. As Horst P. Horst’s assistant, Scavullo closely studied the master photographer’s signature lighting techniques. Working as Horst P. Horst’s assistant for three years, Scavullo had his own photography studio by 1948.
Under the guidance of Babs Simpson, editor of Vogue from 1947 to 1972, Scavullo landed a contract with ‘Seventeen’ magazine in 1948. As a young photographer, he learned to work with the industry’s notoriously temperamental talent. As he once explained, “I was a little kid in jeans with curly hair”. After model Meg Mundy refused to work with him, “I realised there are two kinds of models. Pretty nice models and bitchy pretty models”.
In 1965, editor Helen Gurley Brown brought Scavullo to ‘Cosmopolitan’, where he shot the magazine’s covers for 30 years. The ‘Cosmo girl’ emerged through his control over choosing models and styling. Scavullo’s 1969 photograph of singer Janis Joplin with a cigarette in her hand was exhibited at theAmon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. The museum poster refers to Joplin, who died in 1970, as having a ‘free-spirited fervor of the counterculture revolution’.
Shot in the early 1970s Scavullo work with Brooke Shields as a child, that some considered overly sexual, and his now iconic nude centrefold of Burt Reynolds for the ‘Cosmopolitan’ magazine rank as some of the photographer’s more controversial work. Beyond the pages of Cosmopolitan, Scavullo worked with many celebrities and high-profile artists. He collaborated often with Barbra Streisand and Cher. He also helped launch the career of actress and model Farrah Fawcett.
Burt Reynolds – the hairychested actor who starred in such classics as ‘Deliverance’ and ‘Smokey and theBandit’ – became an avatar for a very virile, very louche brand of ’70s masculinity when he became the first man ever to be photographed naked for a major magazine. The image ran in the April 1972 issue of ‘Cosmopolitan’, and it’s been widely imitated – and lampooned – ever since.
During these years, he also contributed to the rise of Gia Carangi, regarded by many as fashion’s first super model. He befriended the young teenager from Philadelphia, future supermodel whose career he was largely responsible for launching. When Carangi’s heroin addiction made it impossible for her to find work later, Scavullo continued to employ and support her until her eventual death from complications of AIDS.
Scavullo created shots for various movie posters, album covers and Broadway shows, including one for ‘A Star is Born’ (1976, featuring Barbra Streisand and Kris Kristofferson), Judy Collins ‘Hard Times for Lovers’, a portrait of Julie Andrews for Black Edwards ‘Victor Victoria’ and photos of Donna Summer for her now iconic double-albums ‘Once Upon A Time’ and ‘Live and More’, for the cover of her smash-hit with Barbra Streisand ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’ and later ‘Summer: The Donna Summer Musical. In 1981, Scavullo was commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov to photograph the dancers of the American Ballet Theatre, which formed the basis of an exhibition that was later shown in a nationwide tour.
Something in my head gets turned on by seeing a woman’s looks really come together with the right makeup, the right hair style, the right clothes. It’s exciting to see a woman metamorphosed into something extraordinary.
He also shot Cher and Diana for their album covers. Through the 1980s Scavullo photographed British band Duran Duran, with his work featured on various releases including the cover of ‘The Wild Boys’ single. He also appeared in the band’s tour documentary ‘Sing Blue Silver’. Other famous names Scavullo had in front of his lens are Sophia Loren, Lena Horn, Liza Minelli, Michael Jackson, Beverly Johnson, Jerry Hall, Biance Jagger, Grace Jones, and Divine, to name just a few.
Sean M. Byrne started assisting Scavullo’s shoots in 1972. The two became eventually became life partners. During these years, Scavullo suffered from mental breakdowns. When Scavullo was finally diagnosed as manic depressive in the 1980s, he advocated for people to learn more about the condition and its treatment.
Through the course of his career, Scavullo shot covers for Seventeen, Cosmopolitan, Interview and Rollingstone. He published six books: Scavullo on Beauty (1976), Scavullo on Men (1977), Scavullo Women (1982), Scavullo: Francesco Scavullo Photographs 1948-1984 (1984), Scavullo: Photographs 50 Years (1997), and Scavullo Nudes (2000).
On January 6, 2004, Francesco Scavullo died of heart failure. Working until the end of his life, he passed on the way to a photo shoot with CNN news anchor Anderson Cooper. He was survived by Byrne, his partner for 32 years.
Today, Scavullo’s works are held in the collections of the Currier Museum of Art in Manchester, NH, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, among others.