From the archive, Glass talks to Michael Reinhardt – one of fashion’s 
masters of photography

Micheal the realist – Glass talks to Michael Reinhardt,  one of fashion’s 
masters of photography

Born in Los Angeles in 1938, Michael Reinhardt is the eldest son of film producer and screenwriter Wolfgang Reinhardt and grandson to renowned theatre and motion picture director Max Reinhardt. Though a passion for images has probably always been there by blood, it took him a move to Germany with his family in 1953, attending law school in France and a modelling agent’s offer to find his true calling.

More than four decades spent as a fashion photographer in Paris and New York not only originated timeless images published on the pages of Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, The New York Times, Elle, Marie Claire, Jardin des Modes, Glamour, Life and Esquire, but also took the photographer on incredible journeys, allowing him to see things he might not have had the opportunity to experience otherwise. Fragments of fleeting moments that caught his attention and he immortalised with his Leica, this was reality as he saw it, no digitalisation, no retouching. Today, Reinhardt has three children and lives in Los Angeles with his wife and youngest child. But his street photography continues to wonder through the gleaming eyes of nuns, children and the everyday common people he photographs.

Alongside caricature-like dogs, romantic sights of Americana and deserted landscapes, his pictures possess the same charm and the authentic character of the powerfully real shots that personified the old school glamour of rising supermodels like Janice Dickinson and Gia Carangi, and enraptured thousands of magazine readers.

Here Reinhardt shares the stories of how he became one of the fashion industry’s most requested professionals, and gives insight into working in the Golden Age of print publication alongside some of the great masters of photography and the reasons that made him retire from what he refers to as the “world of fashion”.

Vanity, New York City, 1996 courtesy of Michael ReinhardtVanity, New York City, 1996. Courtesy of Michael Reinhardt

“I worked as a fashion photographer from the early 1960s until 2003 when I moved from New York, where I had been living and working since 1970, to Los Angeles”, begins Reinhardt. “My first encounter with the World of Fashion came at a time when I was still a young attorney interning with a French law firm in Paris. I had taken a few days off from my internship to travel with my wife, Bernadette, to Munich, Germany where I had to do some research for my doctoral thesis. While I was working in the library of the University of Munich my wife was running some errands around town.

As she was strolling down the Leopoldstrasse, one of Munich’s main shopping streets, a woman who introduced herself as Eileen Ford, the famous model agent, approached her and asked if she would be interested in becoming a fashion model. Neither my wife nor I had any idea about the fashion industry, but one thing soon led to another and before we knew it she was successfully working as a model with Dorian Leigh, at the time the leading model agency in Paris.


Watching the sunset, Montauk, 1978 courtesy of Michael ReinhardtWatching the sunset, Montauk, 1978. Courtesy of Michael Reinhardt

“Meanwhile, I had obtained my PhD and the law firm I was interning with hired me to work as a fulltime attorney. When I had been in the legal profession for about a year, I received a call from Eileen Ford asking to me have lunch with her. The upshot was that Eileen wanted someone with my type of background to be the business manager of Dorian Leigh, which at the time the Fords co-owned. I was offered a good salary and I decided that this was a golden opportunity and accepted the offer.

“But after about 10 months, I soon understood that what amounted to being a model agent was not for me and I began thinking that what REALLY sounded like fun was what I perceived to be the glamorous life of a fashion photographer, travelling to exotic locations all over the world, always in the company of beautiful models, and taking stunning photographs.

“So I left my job at Dorian Leigh’s and set about learning my new craft. I rented a studio and began taking test pictures making use of the connections in the fashion business I had made during my time at Dorian’s. It took some time and tremendous dedication but eventually I started working for some of the French magazines (Elle, Vingt Ans, Jardin des Modes and eventually French Vogue) and I loved my exciting new job!

“When I was first working in Paris as an aspiring young fashion photographer I had a small studio in the sixteenth arrondissement. One day as I was in my darkroom, the doorbell rang. I opened the door and found myself facing a middle-aged gentleman who was bleeding profusely from a wound to his forehead. Without any further ado and in an extremely loud voice he exclaimed, ‘YEAH!!! I THINK I BUMPED MY HEAD ON THE GLASS DOOR DOWNSTAIRS!’ I had no idea who this man might be, but the blood flowing from his wound was worrying and needed attention so I asked him to come in and took him to the bathroom to clean him up and bandage what turned out to be a fairly benign but copiously bleeding gash. I should probably have taken him to the hospital to have the thing stitched up and offered to do so, but he refused, saying it was ‘nothing’.

“At this point he introduced himself as Louis Faurer, a name I immediately recognised as that of a well-known fashion photographer whose work I had often admired in various publications. He explained that he had obtained my name and address from another photographer, Jean Pierre Zachariasen, whose wife Gunilla Lindblad, was a model who was presently travelling on location in Yugoslavia with my then wife, Bernadette (she was also a model). At this point he showed me an umbrella he was carrying and he told me that Jean Pierre had forgotten the umbrella at his apartment and that he didn’t have a number where he could reach him. ‘YEAH!!! COULD YOU PLEASE CALL YOUR WIFE IN YUGOSLAVIA AND ASK HER TO TELL GUNILLA TO CALL JEAN PIERRE AND LET HIM KNOW THAT I HAVE HIS UMBRELLA?’ he exclaimed in his stentorian tone of voice. I told him that I had Jean Pierre’s number and that it might be easier to simply call Jean Pierre directly here in Paris. ‘YEAH!! THAT’S A GREAT IDEA!’


Self Portrait #3, West Virginia, 1978 courtesy of Michael ReinhardtSelf Portrait #3, West Virginia, 1978 courtesy of Michael ReinhardtSelf Portrait #3, West Virginia, 1978. Courtesy of Michael Reinhardt

“Lou, as I came to know him, had a knack for complicating things, but over the years we became close friends. That day (after calling Jean Pierre and informing him about the umbrella) we sat and talked for quite some time and eventually he asked me to show him some of my work. At the time I had a small portfolio, which consisted of a number of ‘test’ pictures I had taken over the past few months. I was just starting to find my way as a fashion photographer and most of the images were taken in the dramatic style of Helmut Newton’s work (black and white shot with a red filter for added drama).

Newton was my hero and I copied him faithfully, thinking that this would surely lead to being a successful fashion photographer. Lou looked at the pictures and said little until he came upon one snapshot I had taken of my wife and my son. ‘YEAH!! THIS IS THE DIRECTION YOU SHOULD BE GOING IN! THIS IS A FINE SHOT! IT’S MORE INTERESTING AND STIRRING THAN THE OTHERS.’ I was shocked. It was a simple shot that I had almost not included in my portfolio thinking that it lacked drama and did not look anything like Newton’s work. But the upshot is that I listened to Lou, discarded all my Newton copies and began shooting in a way that was similar to the shot of my wife and son.

“It was a defining moment in my career and over time my fashion work became known for this style, which was simple and straightforward, relying more on the ‘feeling’ it reflected than the techniques Helmut Newton employed to enhance the drama in his images. I realised that the strength Newton brought to his work was not just a matter of technique, but that his pictures were dramatic in their very content and that the techniques he used were simply employed to highlight that content which had very little to do with what my own images reflected. Later, as our friendship became closer, Lou encouraged me to pursue not just fashion photography but to try some photo-reportage.


Save Carnegie courtesy of Michael ReinhardtSave Carnegie courtesy of Michael ReinhardtSave Carnegie. Courtesy of Michael Reinhardt

“I’ll never forget an afternoon in New York when I visited him in his loft and he showed me dozens of prints of his street photography. I was truly blown away by the power and intensity of these images and immediately decided to purchase a Leica camera, which I always carried with me and used extensively to photograph anything that caught my eye. Lou also introduced me to Robert Frank and they both encouraged me to continue with my efforts as a street photographer. Robert and Lou became my mentors and their influence on my work was immeasurable.

“In the ‘50s, ‘60s and early ‘70s the fashion business was in the midst of what some people refer to as the Golden Age” of Fashion Photography” and when I arrived in New York in 1970 I just caught the end of it. The “Golden Age” was a time when Harper’s Bazaar, under the direction of Alexey Brodovitch and later Henry Wolf, Marvin Israel, Bea Feitler and Ruth Ansel, was probably the best fashion magazine in the history of fashion magazines, and a time during which the work of such icons as Richard Avedon, Irving Penn, Melvin Sokolsky, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, Jimmy Moore, Bill Silano, Arthur Elgort and Bruce Lawrence graced the pages of fashion magazines. They became my idols and exerted a great influence on my work.

“In the late ‘70s and early ‘80s I worked regularly for Italian Harper’s Bazaar. At the time it was owned by an Italian fabric designer, Pepone Della Schiava, and run by his Editor in Chief, Lizette Kattan. They were both committed to producing a beautiful magazine and allowed their contributors complete freedom to produce the best work they could. All the top photographers of the time worked at Bazaar. During the haute couture collections in Rome, Pepone would regularly rent the entire Grand Hotel and all the models and photographers stayed there while they were shooting the collections. It was an inspiring and fun time to say the least. I would enjoy the generous perks of staying at one of the Eternal City’s top hotels and the wonderful freedom of producing some of the best fashion pictures I took in my entire career.

“It was also a time during which photographers were treated as artists and had much more power in the world of fashion and more control over the appearance of the work they were producing than in later years when, in my opinion, the power shifted to the people in charge of making publications profitable and to the so-called ‘super models’ and their agencies. But when I arrived in New York in 1970 some photographers were still looked upon as great artists and determined the look of the pages of fashion magazines. Back then more emphasis was placed on creative freedom and the aesthetics of fashion photographs, while in today’s world commercial considerations largely determine what is published.

“Another factor in the changes in the fashion world is the digitalisation of photography and fashion magazines. Today literally every fashion photograph appearing in a magazine has been extensively retouched, resulting in a level of perfection that, in my opinion looks somewhat unrealistic and contrived and takes away some of the excitement from before.
“But my reasons for eventually retiring from the world of fashion after some forty years had little to do with how the industry had changed. It was much more a matter of wishing to focus on my street photography. Added to this was the fact that I had attained a certain level of financial security, which made it possible not to think of my work as my sole and indispensable source of income, and I was able to concentrate on my creative efforts without the burden of having to accept working for lucrative purposes. (In my experience, whenever there is MONEY involved, things tend to become complicated and the focus on creating beautiful or thought-provoking works purely for the challenge and the pleasure of creating them is somewhat impaired.

“Going to work for remunerative purposes invariably led me to feel in some way contrived when I was shooting. My first thought was always to please the client. This is not to say that a fashion photograph cannot be beautiful or thought-provoking. My point is that I feel more comfortable and at my best trying to produce work that pleases me rather than feeling limited in this process by thinking about what might make a client happy.)

“When I’m working on my street photography, I find there’s one essential factor that determines what I decide to capture: when I’m shooting, I create a theme and that theme determines what I will photograph. For instance, I might decide to work on images that involve some kind of graffiti (which is one of my favourite subject matters) and consequently I will focus on any type of graffiti that tells a larger story. I find that different types graffiti tell different stories about the world we live in and can be extremely thought-provoking, or comical or sad or informative and can be used to explore social, political or economic conditions and reflect the very nature of our surroundings and the people who inhabit them.

“But while I’m working on my theme I just might come across something that awakens my attention and that I might find moving or just plain beautiful, which has nothing to do with my theme, and I will, of course, photograph it just for the sake of creating a good image. In this case, what I decide to photograph is simply a matter of intuition and feeling.

“I strive to capture images that are emotional and evocative without ever becoming preachy or judgmental, and never cross the line into satire or sociological condemnation.

“In my opinion, the two most important factors in making a good photographer are a base of talent and, just as important, hard work. When I speak of ‘talent’, I’m referring to what is often called ‘a good eye’ i.e. the ability to intuitively ‘see’, identify and compose the building blocks of a strong photograph which is an image that tells a story and stimulates the viewer’s attention, curiosity and emotions.

“But while this talent is clearly a God-given characteristic, it can only flourish within a framework of constant dedication and hard work. Both as a fashion photographer as well as in my ‘street photography’, or photo-reportage, I found that whenever I took time off for a small (infrequent) vacation, upon returning when I picked up my cameras again, I immediately became aware of a touch of rustiness. I felt rather like an athlete who is a bit out of shape. My ‘eye’ would be less sensitive and my reaction time slower than had been the case prior to taking the vacation. And it would take me a few days to return to my previous level. To be successful both in fashion and street photography it took tremendous dedication and constant work, constant ‘training’ and I always felt that the more and harder I worked, the better my results became.

“Understand that you must never stop trusting your own judgment, which is the only judgment that really counts when you’re creating a work of art! And above all else, NEVER stop working hard!! Hard work is the only means to achieving your goals. ”

And what of hope, I ask just before he hangs up?

“The dictionary defines hope as an ‘emotional state which promotes the belief in a positive outcome related to the events and circumstances in one’s life.’ So if I did not have a great deal of hope every time I pick up a camera, I would soon abandon my goal which is to create beautiful, thought-provoking images and never pick the damned thing up again. Fortunately, I still have plenty of hope when it comes to my work and that hope keeps me going.”

by Bruna Volpi

Reinhardt’s first book, Just What I Saw (Pictures from the Road), was released at the end of 2012.

From the Glass archive – Issue 9 – Hope