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Francesco Scavullo courtesy of the Francesco Scavullo Foundation

Liza Minnelli, photographed in 1967, is in a Francesco Scavullo exhibition, “Hollywood Women.” 


THE perception of Francesco Scavullo, the late fashion photographer best known for creating 30 years of seductive, cleavage-centric Cosmopolitan covers, is that he only ever cared about the last picture he took. That is how you are judged in the magazine business, by how many copies an image can move on the newsstand.


Mr. Scavullo’s success in this regard — his “feverish success” in the words of Helen Gurley Brown, the former Cosmopolitan editor — helped sell millions and millions of magazines, and it created the template for fashion books to be identified with one unvarying cover style, repeated each month.

Mr. Scavullo, who died in 2004 at age 82, suffered from both a notorious ego and a career-long rivalry with Richard Avedon, most closely associated with Vogue, who was seen as a photographer with greater artistic credibility. 

In his personal life, he was prone to mood swings and nervous breakdowns, and it was determined in 1981, he later revealed, that he was manic-depressive. In a tome marking his 50th anniversary as a photographer, he wrote that his condition led to moments of intensity and creative peaks — “like singing over a cold for an opera singer” — and unusually extravagant behavior. He once was arrested for walking naked down Park Avenue, carrying a sign commanding Marilyn Monroe to be named the patron saint of movie stars.

“He did not want to be known just for the Cosmopolitan covers, or for being manic depressive,” said Sean M. Byrnes, Mr. Scavullo’s companion and longtime collaborator in the photo studio. “He only wanted to be known as Francesco Scavullo, photographer. His camera was an eye.”

A critical reassessment of Mr. Scavullo, in the opinion of Mr. Byrnes and of Peter R. Stern, the photographer’s attorney, is long overdue. They have presented exhibitions of his non-Cosmo portraits in small gallery shows and at a benefit at Sotheby’s in New York in April, culminating in the largest show of his work so far, opening today at the Gallery at New World Stages (the lobby of a theater complex at 343 West 49th Street). The 80-some portraits on display are indeed remarkable, and some of them are famous, capturing the emotional essence of actresses and singers. Janis Joplin, who notoriously propositioned Mr. Scavullo during their first encounter, then told him she had a venereal disease, projects a radiance in images that are frighteningly beautiful.

Glenn Close is shown wringing her hands through her hair, and a young Liza Minnelli, with darkly accented brows and lashes, appears to challenge Mr. Scavullo with her eagerness for the camera, nearly poking through the frame.

Fashion photographers have been greatly rehabilitated in the minds of curators and collectors in recent years. A number were included in a 2004 exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art, and their work has been featured in auctions and galleries, leading to significant increases in the value of works by 20th-century masters like George Hoyningen-Huene, Horst P. Horst, Cecil Beaton, Irving Penn and Helmut Newton.

In the view of Mr. Scavullo’s champions, his portraits also deserve to be included in this group, even though he did not leave behind a significant legacy of prints, a flaw in the eyes of collectors. The highest price a Scavullo print has brought at auction is $4,780, which is puny compared with works by Mr. Penn, Mr. Avedon and Edward Steichen.

Some curators agree he is undervalued — although not always in the way Mr. Scavullo believed himself to be. “With Cosmopolitan the guy established a cultural signpost, a signature idea, which has affected millions of people over the years,” said Rick Wester, the director of photographs at Phillips de Pury & Company, the auctioneers. “Say whatever you will about Scavullo as an artist. As someone who established a look and a notion of a particular kind of woman, he is incredibly important.”

Despite Mr. Scavullo’s artistic ambitions, it may be that his Cosmo work merits the most admiration. It is at least a history of the paradigms of beauty and hairstyles during the decades they appeared. The physical perfection of a Scavullo cover image may have been an illusion, a result of flattering lighting and some rather crude tricks, but they are nevertheless the expression of what he thought was beautiful at the moment.

“He was a real bosom expert — if the models did not have a bosom then he would push up whatever they had with a pair of bobby socks,” Ms. Brown said. “We didn’t want to take a picture of a librarian or the girl next door or the girl selling notions in Bloomingdale’s department stores. We wanted the most glamorous woman alive. That’s who we all like to look at.”

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