Before Photoshop, Melvin Sokolsky Created Something Magical for Harper’s Bazaar
As a child growing up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, future fashion photographer Melvin Sokolsky encountered the work of Dutch painter Hieronymous Bosch. He was especially mesmerized by the painter’s depiction of a man and woman, both naked, sitting inside a bubble in Bosch’s painting, The Garden of Earthly Delights. It triggered the young boy’s fantasies of floating like an angel over his own city, New York, an image that stuck with him all throughout his childhood. So when Melvin Sokolsky, at the tender age of 21, was asked by Harper’s Bazaar to shoot the 1963 Paris fashion collection, he immediately latched on to that image of floating in a bubble that he found in Bosch’s work.
His idea – which many, like fellow photographer Richard Avedon, derided as impossible – was to place model Simone d’Aillencourt in a giant plexiglass bubble and suspend her over multiple Parisian locations. But Sokolsky found his technical solution when he spied huge Champagne-inspired plastic bubbles in a Christmas display in the B. Altman department store window on Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue.
All things floating and flying in outerspace were the craze during the 1960s and that quickly reached the fashion industry, from the spaceage designs of André Courrèges to those of Pierre Cardin. But nothing like Photoshop existed at the time so Sokolsky’s project had to accomplish his vision in the real world using an actual Plexiglas bubble suspended from a crane by an 1/8 thick aviation cable (which was later removed in the darkroom printing process). To prove that the cable was strong enough to lift a 120pound model and the bubble, Sokolsky drove a Volkswagen into the studio and dangled the car from the wire. The bubble was hinged and outfitted with a latch which the model could unlock by pulling a cord in case of an emergency.
But staff photographer Avedon was still not a believer saying, “the kid will never get the thing off the ground.” What Avedon hadn’t counted on was that Sokolsky was as gifted an engineer as he was a photographer. In fact, later in his life he designed the first computercontrolled zoom lens which director Francis Ford Coppola used in filming THE GODFATHER.
Aside from the technical achievement, what’s still impressive about the Bubble Series is the dreamlike quality that Sokolsky created. Some of the photos show the Parisians on the streets staring in awe at the beautiful woman in the bubble and in others it’s as if she’s invisible to them. It begins to make you wonder whose dream this is, the floating woman/goddess or the common Parisians.
Sokolsky went on to become a sought after commercial director winning over 20 Clio awards.
Interesting behind-the-scenes fact….Ali MacGraw at the time was working as Sokolsky’s assistant and stylist. You can see her standing in the crew shot above.