Photo: Steven Meisel, Published by Phaidon
Fashion Photographer Steven Meisel’s New Book Highlights Iconic Shoots With Linda Evangelista
The retrospective was curated and sequenced by his model and muse, and adds a new chapter to the 58-year-old Canadian supermodel’s renaissance / BY Shinan Govani / November 29th, 2023
Linda Evangelista kissing a chimpanzee while balancing a shoe on her head? How did she do it?
Lovers of fashion, and fashion photography, in particular, will remember that pic, where glamour met primate to create one of the most indelible images of early Linda lore. No inventory of her career would be complete without it, and there it is, in all its madcap glory, in the first pages of the all-new Phaidon doorstopper, Linda Evangelista Photographed by Steven Meisel.
Turns out the OG Canadian supermodel — a key spoke in the wheel of the quintessentially 1990s phenom — put a candy in her mouth in order to get the chimp’s attention. It was all her idea, and why Linda is Linda, Meisel says in the book.
In the foreword, commissioning editor William Norwich describes the 35-year friendship and working relationship between the New York shutterbug and the leggy Canadian as “one of the longest, if not the longest, collaborations in the history of fashion and fashion photography … They together created images that define a Camelot time in pop culture.” It’s one they also describe as “love at first sight,” ever since their encounter in 1987 on a shoot for American Vogue.
This book, which contains 190 images taken over 25 years, is riding a wave of nostalgia brought on this fall by the marquee AppleTV+ docuseries The Super Models, plus a re-examination of the moment defined by that certain band of women — Linda and Cindy and Naomi and Christy — and ups the introspection.
There is Evangelista hanging upside down on a ladder; Evangelista in Cuba back when she used to sunbathe (she stopped when she was 33); Evangelista channelling Katharine Hepburn here; Evangelista hamming it up with Tony Bennett there; and Evangelista in the boyishly shorn cut that catapulted her to stardom in 1988 and created a quake in style circles – the snip that literally shook the world.
There’s also Evangelista in Rome, in a flicker of pics surrendering to a moment in time in 1991, aptly titled La Dolce Vita. The trip – consisting of a three-day marathon of lunches, dinners and exhibitions to mark Valentino’s 13th anniversary in fashion – is particularly memorable because Evangelista had arrived there sans glam squad. It was just her and Meisel making a documentary, if you will, of still images.
Keeping the focus on the work, and not the vicissitudes of Evangelista’s life – and what a ride it has been for the 58-year-old – this retrospective of Meisel’s work, curated and sequenced by his model and muse, together with the Vogue September cover featuring Evangelista with Cindy Crawford, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington arguably represents a Gloria Gaynor triumph of sorts. It was only in 2022, after all, when the beauty came clean to People about the “hiding and shame” she went through after developing disfiguring lumps on her body caused by CoolSculpting, a popular fat-freezing treatment.
Evangelista truly thought her work as a model was over, and sued the parent company, Zeltiq Aesthetics, for US$50 million, which was later settled. “I loved being up on the catwalk. Now I dread running into someone I know,” she told the mag.
This moment too arrives somewhat bittersweetly after Evangelista’s surprise confession to the Wall Street Journal in September that she’s had cancer twice in the last five years; cancer of the pectoral muscle in 2022 and breast cancer in 2018, for which she underwent a double mastectomy.
This new book? It clearly also functions as a kind of thesis on the changing mores of photography. Evangelista and Meisel were shooting film, not digital. The Meisel way? He would take a bunch of Polaroids before shooting, and he and his team – including the model – would then dissect them. All the retouching was essentially done before he pressed the shutter. Nowadays, as Evangelista reiterates in the book, everything is done in post-production. This has lessened the magic of the moment, so real in her heyday that, on a photo shoot, the fans used to whip hair and clothes into pleasing shapes and would often blow off her fake lashes in mid-pose. Another fulcrum of the book is that Evangelista was always more than a model. Like Lady Di or Jackie O, she was a great silent star, using photos to tell a story. Unlike so many models today, who are constantly expected to give something of themselves on social media, and/or make themselves relatable in some way, she has mystique in spades and remains truest inside the frame. No wonder Karl Lagerfeld once called her the Stradivarius of models.
Always in focus, but just out of reach.