Pop-up exhibit shows the early ’60s fashion photography of Len Steckler,
By Andy Vasoyan
The ’60s were a different time, so we’ve been told. Amid cultural tumult and advancing technology, photographer Len Steckler was fusing advertising and pictures with an artist’s eye.
Steckler started his career years earlier, as an artist who drew pictures for ad companies; he’d shared a desk with Andy Warhol.
“A lot of times, what he would do is he would take a photo of a model and start drawing it, and the advertiser would see the photo and go ‘Let’s use that instead,’” says Pierre Vudrag. He’s the president of Limited Runs, which sells posters, print art and photography and this weekend is presenting a retrospective of Steckler’s work in West Los Angeles.
“As the ’50s started to progress, photo-graphy became more acceptable. The technology got better, and there was a shift. Because photography was so new, there was no right way to do it,” says Vudrag. “At that time it was ‘How do we do it?’ So [Steckler] was able to experiment, and because he experimented, he also got a lot of the quirky campaigns.”
In the late ’60s, Steckler did an ad for AT&T that featured an African-American model, an Asian-American model and a white model.
“It was the first time they had an ad like that,” Vudrag says, “and it caused a lot of controversy, but it was a big success.”
In 1974, Steckler put Jets quarterback Joe Namath in pantyhose for Hanes.
For his fashion shoots, Steckler also played with location, though he never omitted the fashion of the era.
“He had the sense that if he brought these models into the studio and made them look glamorous, well, they were already glamorous,” says Vudrag. “What he started to do was take his models out into the streets of New York, in very un-elegant settings: in phone booths, in front of construction sites, with moving trucks.”
It was one of those mundane settings — a shoot in front of a window — that would lead to one of Steckler’s personal obsessions, which would become the theme of the retrospective that Vudrag and Limited Runs have put together.
“He said that ‘When I saw the model leaning against the window, it was almost like a mirror image of her, but you got a different perspective on the smile on her face,’” Vudrag recalls Steckler, who died last year, saying. “It was almost like she was frowning, so he felt that the reflection could show another side of someone, maybe the side you show the public, and maybe the side you show yourself.”
According to Vudrag, that shoot was where Steckler got the idea for using mirrors, and also where the name of the show comes from: “Reflections of the Man Behind the Mirror.”
“You can actually see a little bit of him in one of the pictures, so we thought that was appropriate, and a little funny,” Vudrag says.
For the exhibit, 28 previously unreleased pictures from Steckler’s private collection will be on display at The Mattress Art Gallery, west of Century City. The photos are clearly a product of the ’60s: bright, primary colors, high heels, higher ponytails and a wardrobe any mod would kill for.
One model poses in front of a small hand mirror, her reflection visible but mysterious; another poses in front of a number of glass shards; another’s reflection tessellates on a disco ball. A series of models pose in rooms entirely of glass and mirrors.
“It’s pre-psychedelic, since that hadn’t been invented yet, but they’re from that era,” says Vudrag. “We don’t even know who the models are, but you just know by looking: that’s a Steckler photograph.”
“Reflections of the Man Behind the Mirror” is open to the public from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Friday and Saturday, Feb. 3 and 4, at The Mattress Art Gallery, 10545 W. Pico Blvd., West L.A. Visit limitedruns.com for more info.