People in the magazine business, people in the worlds of graphic art and design, people who were alive in the ’60s—like to talk about the famous Esquire look of the era. (Okay, sometimes too much, in our opinion, but we’ll take the attention.) Many of Esquire’s covers from that time have become iconic—reproduced, recognized, still discussed. And when we talk about the most famous of those covers—Muhammad Ali, Sonny Liston, Andy Warhol—we’re talking about the work of photographer Carl Fischer, who died this week at his home in New York at the age of 98. Fischer was part of a wave of groundbreaking photographers that included Diane Arbus, Richard Avedon, Robert Frank, and Bruce Davidson, whose work began appearing in popular magazines in the mid-’50s. Esquire was an oversized
magazine until 1971—it measured 10” by 13”—so the visceral impact of full-page photographs or two-page spreads was powerful.
But here’s something people don’t talk about as much, or enough: These photographers were assigned not just covers but journalistic essays. Fischer may be best-known for his covers (he shot 46 for Esquire from 1963-’80), but the photo essays he contributed to the magazine—on white segregationists; bootcamp at Parris Island; the last remaining firing squad in the country, in Utah—were not merely a companion to the reporting of John Sack, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese that appeared in the same pages, but very often its equal. Photojournalism at its most evocative and personal.
Fischer began his career as an art director taking pictures on the side. But his hobby soon turned into a vocation. I had the good fortune of visiting Fischer at his studio in 2016. It was a neatly organized space and as we sat and discussed his career for a few hours. Fischer, still dapper, wore black slacks and a dress shirt, and spoke in an unhurried, friendly manner, his New York accent barely noticeable. He wasn’t without an ego but Fischer was more self-effacing that I expected; he seemed to genuinely enjoy the collaborative nature of his work more than needing to take credit for it himself. It was a pleasure spending that short time with him. We’ve reprinted the interview below. I hope you enjoy it.—Alex Belth
Esquire: Did you study painting at Cooper Union?
Carl Fischer: We had painting classes but I was more interested in graphic design. When I graduated I was an art director for a half a dozen years. All of our careers were accidental. I got a Fulbright Scholarship and I went to England. I went there to do book design, typography, which I always liked and I did that for a while. Then I got bored with it and they had a dark room that was not being used. They didn’t have a photography instructor, so I got some books from the library and I learned how to develop film and I took pictures and I liked it, it was fun. When I came back, I was an art director again but I would do freelance pictures for agencies on the side.
ESQ: What kind of camera did you use?
CF: I used a rolleicord, I couldn’t afford a rolleiflex. When I got out of school, magazines were mostly illustrated, drawn pictures. Photography came in little by little in the ’50s but photography was not an art. It wasn’t sold in galleries, people didn’t collect photography.
ESQ: Even guys like Alfred Stieglitz? Wasn’t he recognized at that point?
CF: Only in a very small group of like five people. I have an Irving Penn color print. His work now sells for $50-60,000 a print. I worked at Look Magazine for a short while and I picked it up out of the garbage can. They had used it for something at the magazine and then when they were through with it they threw it away. Photography was a craft. It wasn’t art, it was just photography. Irving Penn’s stuff was not art. There were no photography galleries. In my lifetime, it changed from being a newspaper with a speed graphics camera and a flash bulb into what it’s become, completely different. Now everyone’s a photographer. Which is fine. A lot of people find that they like art and it’s not intimidating.
ESQ: As you said there was a change in magazine advertising from strictly illustration to photography, as an art director, were you starting to work with photographers?
CF: Yes. I still wanted to see what photographers did. As an art director, I hired different photographers every time I had an assignment. I never worked with the same photographer twice. I wanted to see how they worked, Avedon and others, and often I was disappointed.
ESQ: Disappointed in their work? Or that you didn’t get as much out of them as you expected to?
CF: Both. Disappointed in their work and disappointed in what I got. I rejected an Avedon photograph that he did for me. I hated it. Then he did another one that was even worse. I had an adventure one weekend where I shot the ad myself because we had no more money. I got free models to help me out and a stylist and I shot the picture on the weekend and it ran. We didn’t tell the client that it was not Avedon anymore because they had paid for him. It was an adequate picture, it wasn’t sensational but I said, “Oh, there’s no magic in this.” Like people who have iPhones now, there’s no magic in it. You can take a good picture with anything, as Apple is very wisely doing by running artful photographs as ads, to show how good you can take a photograph with iPhone, which goes back to the fact that people took great photographs with box cameras.
ESQ: Did you find that you were just taking more and more photographs for yourself? Were you taking a camera around with you?
CF: I never became a fine artist photographer. I did some pictures for myself, yes, but I was so busy. I would work nights and weekends doing photography freelance until it got so busy that I just quit my job as an art director and opened a studio with a friend of mine.
ESQ: What was it like leaving art direction and working as a full-time photographer?
CF: I loved art direction, I loved design. I figured I was never going to make a living in photography so I’m going to have to go back to art directing eventually but I never had to. I got very busy doing photography. I hired a lot of people. We had a very big studio and so I never got back to doing designing which I was sad about because I like typography, I like designing. I like that but you can’t do everything.
ESQ: You first started appearing in Esquire in the Fifties but then really caught on as a regular in the Sixties.
CF: I remember going around the south photographing segregationist leaders. Harold Hayes said, “Don’t use your wise-guy wide-angle lens. We want to be fair to these people, even though we hate their guts. We want to appear to be fair.” So I didn’t use my goddamn wide angle lens, I took straight portraits of them. Why closeups? Maybe that was my idea, I don’t know why. They had interesting faces. They were such nasty people that when I got back, I had shot it on a small camera and I enlarged it on 8 x 10 film on my studio enlarger, and I made it very contrasting so that the pores would stick out.
ESQ: You worked with several art directors at Esquire but your most recognized work are from Esquire covers and George Lois was in charge of them. Would you just take the photograph for him? Would he conceptualize the picture?
CF: He conceptualized most of them. He was very good at that. Not all of them though, although he took credit for all of them, which led to our falling out. Lois to me was the Donald Trump of art directors. We had a terrible blow up and I never worked with him after that. It had to do with him taking credit for things that he had nothing to do with, including covers. His name was on all the covers. Now when he publishes the covers, he airbrushes my name out. That was our relationship, like Gilbert and Sullivan, we just didn’t get along.
ESQ: But do you get a sense that there are some people who are successful because success is so important to them that the sort of material success, the ego-driven successes ?
CF: I had a theory once—I’m not sure it’s correct—that early success is poisonous. Paul Rand, an art director that I worked with, was successful because he was around during World War II when nobody else was around. He was able to become a big success right away. Who else? George Lois was a success young. I think everybody who is successful young has a fear they aren’t going to be able to sustain it. I think that goes with everybody—presidents, everybody. You can’t be at the top of the mountain without realizing that it’s a steep drop.
ESQ: And sometimes the work that you become famous for is out of your control.
CF: The other side of the coin is when something you’ve done is very well-liked and you’re famous for it — I sell more pictures of Muhammad Ali as Saint Sebastian than anything else and that doesn’t make me happy because it’s an adequate photograph, certainly, but I’ve done better.
ESQ But it’s about something bigger than you.
ESQ: Which I can imagine is almost a detached kind of feeling. It would be one thing if it was a personal favorite photograph of yours that you adored for its aesthetic merits.
CF: But it’s not.
ESQ: At the same point, at least you’re stuck with something that’s given you lots of wonderful things in your life.
CF: Yeah, it’s fine. You can’t be unhappy that you made a movie like The Graduate that was so great but then you couldn’t do it again. It’s frustrating: What did I do? What happened? Why can’t I do it again?
AB: Do you have fond memories of your magazine work?
CF: I did a lot of work for Redbook at the time where they would send me the manuscript and say: “Do something.” That was really great, I’d read the manuscript and I could do anything, sometimes it was very good. Sometimes it wasn’t very good, but it was a great opportunity to do something. I find that I don’t do well when I see a blank white canvas. I don’t know where to begin. But if you’ve got an assignment—do something with this terrible story—you figure out something. It’s kind of like a puzzle. Art, in many ways, is like a puzzle. How do you solve this thing? There’s no magical ways for it, there’s no rules for it.
AB: In your industry, those decisions are made because you have your next assignment.
CF: Deadlines solves a lot of problems. I always loved the fact that there were assignments and a deadline where you had to finish it. A fine artist doesn’t know when it’s over. Limitations are great.
[This conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.]