Melvin Sokolsky: The Paris Pictures, 1963 and 1965 @Staley-Wise

JTF (just the facts): A total of 30 black and white and color photographs, framed in black and matted, and hung against white walls in the two room main gallery space and the office area. The 28 black and white works are a mix of gelatin silver print and archival pigment prints, made in 1963 and 1965 and printed later; the 2 color works are also archival pigment prints, made in the same years and also printed later. Physical sizes range from 11×14 to 50×50 (the smallest prints are from a portfolio of 12 images), and edition sizes are generally 25, except for the very largest 50×50 prints which are available in editions of 5. A short video of Sokolsky at work is also on view. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: While the outlandish and the outrageous are now the predictable domains of contemporary fashion photography, back in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the mainstream aesthetic for images of models and clothing was still relatively controlled. Building up from the elegance of traditional studio work, the experiments of the day were largely extensions of that refinement, adding a splash of energy to accepted forms and setups. There was more outdoor shooting, more active and intentional movement, and a touch of Surrealist weirdness in some cases, all combining to infuse the genre with new freshness.

But Melvin Sokolsky’s so-called “bubble” pictures from 1963 offered a brash radicalism that sucked all the attention away from this relatively conservative backdrop. In his images, glamorous models were flying all over Paris in transparent space age orbs, hovering on street corners and rooftops in ravishing couture gowns. The photographs were intensely modern, puzzlingly odd, and surprisingly gorgeous, and half a century later, they still feel enchantingly cool.

Archival materials, including images of Sokolsky and his crew and a short video of the team in action, expose the ingenious process used to make these pictures. Created in the days before easy point-and-click digital editing, they required an impressively complex operation of on-the-ground analog-era technical activities (Gregory Crewdson would have approved). While the final images find Sokolsky’s models seemingly suspended in mid-air in their incomprehensible bubbles, the reality was achieved using a massive construction crane (kept out of the frame), a thin wire, and a connecting bracket, the latter two hand retouched out of the images by the artist back in the studio, leaving the bubbles floating without support.

Sokolsky’s logistical ingenuity generated plenty of memorable moments. Dressed in their finery, his models seem to walk on the water of the Seine, bounce down the stairs of a quay (harassed by fire breathing performers), hover in the dark treetops of the Bois de Boulogne, roll down classic tiled rooflines, and bound through the streets, stopping just long enough to smile at a policeman or catch the glimpses of astonished onlookers and passersby. In the process, his bubbles became more than just an oddball conveyance; as the series expanded, the visual idea gained breadth – a genie in a bottle, a locket with a treasure inside, a Christmas ornament or fancy hanging bauble, a thought bubble filled by a fantastical idea of grace – and the juxtapositions of the essence of femininity and the various familiar locales of the city became more clever.

Sokolsky’s bubbles were a gimmick in the very best sense of the word – they were an innovative device designed to attract attention, and their durability as images is a testament to just how powerful their magic has been. While a few supplementary images in this show document Sokolsky using the same idea in New York venues or leveraging similar infrastructure to make models seem to fly through fancy restaurants and parties, the Paris bubble pictures feel perfectly tuned to their place and time. Their quirkiness is part of their charm – Sokolsky placed elegant fashion models in wildly unexpected situations, and that creative risk taking produced images that continue to offer fresh fascinations.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. The 12 image portfolio of 11×14 prints is $50000 as a set. Other 11×14 prints are $2000 each, while 16×20 prints are either $2500/3500 (black and white) or $7500 (color). 30×30 (color) and 36×36 (black and white prints) prints are $7500 and $5000/20000 respectively, and the $50×50 prints are $25000/50000/75000 each. Sokolsky’s work has been intermittently available in the secondary markets over the past decade, with individual print prices ranging from roughly $1000 to $22000.

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JTF (just the facts): A total of 25 photographic works, generally framed in steel and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the two room gallery space. The following works ... Read on.

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