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Ruth Ansel, 2002
Every decade has a few magazines that seem to reflect its cultural essence. During the experimental ’60s, Harper’s Bazaar redefined the fashion magazine. In the unsettled ’70s, The New York Times Magazine brought the rough and tumble world of the Nixon era into focus. And in the opulent ’80s, Vanity Fair pioneered the glamorization of the media. It just so happens that one woman, Ruth Ansel, was the art director for each of these magazines in its heyday.

Over the years, Ruth has worked with many of the great magazine imagemakers — from Irving Penn to Bruce Weber. She has designed books for Annie Leibovitz and Richard Avedon, and has overseen ad campaigns for Versace, Club Monaco, and many others. And yet, in spite of her stature in the world of graphic design, Ruth is startlingly understated when assessing her own work and its impact on culture.

Last month, photographer and friend Leeta Harding visited Ruth Ansel at her Upper West Side apartment, where she lives surrounded by her favorite photographs and bound volumes of some of the most arresting magazines of the past forty years.

LEETA: When did you begin at “Harper’s Bazaar”?
RUTH: It was 1961. Carmel Snow had stepped down as editor in chief in 1958, and she’d been replaced by her niece, Nancy White. I applied for a job as an assistant to Marvin Israel, who became my boss and my friend. He was an antagonistic crazy man. Marvin was a big influence. Dick Avedon was a big influence too, and obviously Diana Vreeland, who was the fashion editor. I went straight from some minor jobs out of college smack into the Bazaar art department. I had no knowledge of fashion and little knowledge of photography, but I knew that I loved film.
LEETA: There was so much happening culturally.
RUTH: That’s true. Movies were my touchstone. The excitement of the images, the sense of escape, and the new iconography were what moved me. As I got out into the world, the closest thing to movies that I could envision making a living at was magazines. My choice was Harper’s Bazaar because it had great beauty. I knew nothing of Alexey Brodovitch — who had art directed the magazine so brilliantly for twenty-five years before Marvin Israel. And I only knew Dick Avedon because of Funny Face. At the time my heroes were Picasso, Matisse, and the artists who were emerging in the 1960s. I didn’t think of graphic designers or photographers as heroes — I thought, “So what, nice work — but so what?”
LEETA: As an art director, what are your main concerns?
RUTH: It’s all about casting, casting, casting — finding the right photographer for the right assignment at the right time. In that sense, a good art director is almost silent.
LEETA: Like certain film directors.
RUTH: Yes. There are two important facets to the job. First, you have to juggle the major talents who are already on board. And second, you’re always looking for up-and-comers to complement what you already have. At Harper’s Bazaar, for example, I never wanted two Avedons once I had Avedon, or two Hiros once I had Hiro. Bob Richardson was totally different from any other photographer when he appeared in the early ‘60s, so I helped bring him along.
LEETA: Israel once said that art direction is like theater. “When it works, it’s like putting on a play — there’s this great feeling of union.”
RUTH: He was a great artist himself. He liked the fact that I didn’t come from a graphic design background — that I had a fresh eye. I’ve always respected him for giving me the chance. And there was also Bea Feitler, this mad, wonderful, eccentric, Brazilian girl whom Marvin had taught too. It was just the three of us.
LEETA: What a unique opportunity.
RUTH: Yeah. I learned it all on the job, I really did, and I was in pretty rigorous company. These people were not kidding around with their level of talent. I had no idea that I was working at the tail end of a great era — that Diana Vreeland was one of the greats of all time, who could never be replaced. I had been touched by the brilliance of all these people.
LEETA: What was the reason Vreeland left for “Vogue” in 1962?
RUTH: The story is really a blot against the Hearst Corporation. Nobody got paid much in those days — in most cases they still don’t — so a lot of the ladies who worked in fashion were from rich families. They could afford to work for nothing, and their contacts made the magazine, because they were the beautiful people. Vreeland, who needed to work, was never paid enough money. When she was offered the job at Vogue, Hearst Corporation wouldn’t match it — and it was a measly sum. They lost her on account of that stupidity.
LEETA: And Avedon followed her in 1966?
RUTH: Yes, but Dick left for two reasons. One was that when he lost her, he lost a great inspiration. And two, the April ‘65 special issue that he guest-edited caused tremendous controversy and was a big commercial failure. We all thought it was going to open up new doors to creativity in magazines, but it closed them. So he left.
LEETA: You became co-art director with Bea Feitler in 1963. You must have been in your mid twenties.
RUTH: And we were women! When Marvin was fired there must have been a hell of a lot of talk about, “Who shall we get, who’s going to replace Marvin?” It was a big deal — Harper’s Bazaar was a high-end fashion magazine. The decision was made to give “the girls” the chance to be co-art directors.
LEETA: Did you feel overwhelmed?
RUTH: To be quite honest, I was blissfully ignorant of the legacy. There was a man called Martin Munkacsi who used to come up to the office. I had no idea that he was the great Munkacsi — until Marvin told me to look at back issues from the ‘30s and ‘40s.
LEETA: I’ve heard the name, but I don’t really know his work either.
RUTH: He was Hungarian. But he began in France as a sports photographer. He used natural light and brought a lot of vitality and movement into fashion photography. Up until that time women were mostly photographed standing in idealized poses. It was Carmel Snow who had the foresight and the guts to bring Munkacsi and his approach to her magazine. Munkacsi also influenced Avedon. He took the famous picture of a model leaping over a puddle in high fashion clothes, and Dick literally copied it and called it “Homage to Munkacsi.” Of course he influenced many others. Herb Ritts, Helmut Newton..
LEETA: Do you remember your first issue?
RUTH: I really don’t. The issue that I worked the hardest on, and the one that reflected most of who I was at the time, was the ‘65 Avedon issue. It celebrated the explosion of pop art, rock music, The Beatles and youth.
LEETA: And space-age technology?
RUTH: That’s right. It was this incredible moment in the early ‘60s, and Dick was out there sniffing around. He understood what was happening in politics and the new youth culture. He knew that Nancy White was not savvy enough to pull it off. His success as a photographer gave him great power, so he persuaded Nancy to let him take over the issue as guest editor, which was a wonderful idea.
LEETA: Did you respect Nancy White as an editor?
RUTH: Well, Marvin had the inelegant phrase that we had “the good fortune of having a weak editor.” She got the job because she was related to Carmel Snow. It was just bad that Vreeland got passed over, but the art department was still strong because of the tradition Brodovitch had established. I have to give Nancy credit — she was weak, but she let things happen even if she had to grit her teeth. I don’t consider that weak in the end.
LEETA: The “Bazaar” cover of Steve McQueen with a woman’s hand reaching into the frame was a first. No one had put a man on the cover of a woman’s fashion magazine before!
RUTH: I’m interested in layering. As with anything of substance, the layering of that image went against type. Steve McQueen was a tough guy put into a tuxedo in a high fashion magazine. If it were Cary Grant, it would have been less interesting, more predictable.
LEETA: Of course, you were cutting and pasting everything by hand. The process of layout was very tactile, almost like finger painting.
RUTH: I loved it. That was the most fun, because I could respond to the real size of the images and the page. If you work on the computer you don’t have that advantage. I can’t visualize something when it’s even a half-inch smaller than it should be. And sometimes we’d do a layout by accident and say, “Oh that looks really good, let’s do that.”
LEETA: I was just looking at “Appearances”, Martin Harrison’s book about fashion photography. I was very taken with Bob Richardson’s photo of a girl on a beach with a tear rolling down her cheek, which was shot for "Harper’s Bazaar" in 1964. Michelangelo Antonioni’s L’Avventura is credited as his inspiration. Did Antonioni’s films have an impact on you too?
RUTH: L’Avventura knocked me out. It presented women as mysterious thinking creatures, not as objects. Women were also seen as a little bit depressed. They were allowed to show negative feelings as well as being beautiful. That had never happened in fashion photographs before. Women had to be sunny, perfect, and in a good mood all the time. There was no such thing as an emotion that allowed for a tear, anger, sexual tension, or overt sexuality. Bob came along and expressed that with the kind of models he chose, even the kind of make-up they wore. They looked like they were a part of real life in the ‘60s. They had an inner intelligence. Bob had a vision that was about stripping away the artifice — and I wanted to bring that attitude into the magazine’s content.
LEETA: Bob also created a new kind of glamour.
RUTH: Well at that time his girlfriend was Anjelica Huston. He experimented with drugs, that was the sad part. He took all the risks because he was willing to live that life. Bob was the only photographer that really frightened Avedon. The story is that one day Dick just “dropped in” unannounced to Bob’s studio. Dick was obsessed with Richardson’s ability to get something in his pictures that he couldn’t get.
LEETA: What a fuss.
RUTH: Bob did create a fuss. And I remember how it pleased him, because every photographer in the world knew that Avedon was God. I mean, how many people get to have Fred Astaire play themselves in a movie?
LEETA: At the time, what other photographers were important to you?
RUTH: Diane Arbus. Everybody who has tried to take photographs like Diane recognizes now that they can put together the same kind of photograph, but it never says the same thing because she was a real artist.
LEETA: It’s surprising that her portraits were published in a fashion magazine — she shot people who were at the fringe of society.
RUTH: Yes. She found her place by seeking out people on the edge — both ends fascinated her. She photographed people who were not obviously included in everyday life, people who were hidden. She also took pictures of very wealthy people, who were hidden in another way. Some of those portraits were done for Harper’s Bazaar.
LEETA: When you were asked to leave “Bazaar”, did you become bitter about the fashion world?
RUTH: Actually I didn’t, because I never saw myself as belonging to fashion. I loved it in the same way that I loved film. I felt that it was a wonderful way to work with image-makers that I appreciated, admired, and was inspired by. But Bazaar felt they needed another kind of vision that would make the magazine more commercial. The day that publishing becomes a bottom line business is a sad day for creativity in magazines.
LEETA: This brings us to your work for “The New York Times Magazine” in the 1970s. Can you explain what was happening in the world, and how that influenced you?
RUTH: Let’s remember, 1968 was the end of an era. There was the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., the shootings of John Kennedy and Robert Kennedy. It was a horrifying time — the punctuation of that never left me. Then in the early ‘70s, there was all the ferment of Vietnam. I became less interested in the fashion world and I wanted to learn more about what was really going on. In film, All The President’s Men had just come out, which created a lot of excitement about journalism. The Times gave me an opportunity to be in that moment.
LEETA: Did someone there just call you up out of the blue?
RUTH: Yes. I remember my interview with Lou Silverstein, the head art director. I knew nothing about newspaper design and mentioned that the only place where I might fit was the magazine. Two months later I got a call. Then I really got frightened because it was a weekly, and I’m a terrible deadline person. But because Lou was such a dear and decent man, I thought, “Okay, what the hell.” I admired The New York Times more than anything, and I knew that the magazine section needed to be brought into the twentieth century.
LEETA: Your covers were so bold and graphic. How did you come up with ideas under that kind of pressure?
RUTH: Personalizing the story was the key, for me. If you’re talking about a rocket ship or a battle, you don’t have to show the battle. You can show a person. You want to create impact with an image. My goal was always to exist subliminally, so that the reader would think, “This is a great photograph,” not, “The art director did a great job.”
LEETA: You once used a Warhol silk-screen portrait of Jimmy Carter on the cover. What triggered that idea?
RUTH: For each issue, there were three possible cover stories. I wouldn't know which one we'd use until Thursday, and the design had to be finalized on Friday! That week, we decided to go with the Carter piece. It was horrifying, because nothing was as boring as a press photo of Jimmy's wonderful, pasty, peanut farmer face. Then I remembered Andy had told me about some posters he was doing for a fundraiser. So I quickly called over to the studio and got the image.
LEETA: Was Andy a friend?
RUTH: We were all friends. In the early ‘60s, everybody went to everybody’s opening. Rosenquist, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rauschenberg — all the names that became very famous — at that time they were just people. We had the kind of friendship where you could call up and say, “Do you have anything, do you have a cover? Can I use it?” It was like tightrope walking, because there was no time to commission at The Times. And there was no money for it either. We had to be very scrappy.
LEETA: How did you feel about being a major part of a magazine that was so far-reaching?
RUTH: That gave me the greatest sense of accomplishment, knowing that it was going out to the Kremlin, to England, Spain, France — and to places like Boise, Idaho. My mission was to offer the best work I could under difficult, rushed conditions.
LEETA: There’s a Nan Goldin photograph of a couple taken in Coney Island — they’re reading the “Sunday Times Magazine” with the Mickey Mouse cover you did for a story about Disney. That was a wonderful reminder.
RUTH: I was surprised to see that myself. It’s funny where things end up. The Times was a great learning experience. Also, we did a lot to elevate the fashion section.
LEETA: And then you moved on to “Vanity Fair” in 1982.
RUTH: Yes, but before that I went for a brief moment to Condé Nast’s House & Garden. I was so exhausted from the journalistic frenzy at The Times that I wanted to do a very beautiful magazine, to clean up my head and my vision. I was just starting to enjoy it when I got one of those famous phone calls from Alexander Leiberman. It was a Saturday morning, and he said, “My dear, what are you doing?” I said, “Actually I’m potting a plant, Alex.” He said, “Oh, that’s interesting. Well my dear, I have something to say to you. We’d like you to go to Vanity Fair. We’d like you to take over.” I said, “Wha-what?” I was stunned. I said, “Alex may I think about it?” Because I really didn’t want to go. There was a silence on the other end and he said, “Yes my dear, you can think about it. But your answer will be yes.” And then I got the message. I hadn’t understood that I was a Condé Nast chess piece when I was grabbed from The Times, but during that conversation I learned the truth about corporations. And it all happened over the weekend. He meant, “You start in two days.” That’s why he was called the Silver Fox.
LEETA: What was it like to work alongside Tina Brown?
RUTH: Going back to what I said before, the important ingredients are the right editor, the right idea, and the right team at the right time. And Tina was the perfect editor for that time. The ‘80s were opulent and indulgent. There was lots of money and a building up of American icons. Our royalty is Hollywood, and Tina understood that. She mixed politics and society, style met substance. It was high-gloss glitz.
LEETA: Writers like Dominick Dunne could do over-the-top ten page stories.
RUTH: That’s right. And people like Helmut Newton would shoot Claus Von Bulow or Elizabeth Taylor. But Annie Leibovitz really proved herself to be the photographer of that moment. She was able to find the perfect place for her work, and Vanity Fair could pay her well enough for her to realize her magnificent dreams. Unlike The New York Times, there were no budgetary constraints.
LEETA: Were you always on good terms?
RUTH: There was just one thing. She didn’t talk to me for a time when I gave Bruce Weber the assignment to shoot Jessica Lange and Sam Shepard. Boy was she angry. She had just done a shoot with Sam for an advertising job. Her photos were great, but very different from Bruce’s.
LEETA: I remember Weber’s photographs. They were beautiful, black and white, very romantic and steamy.
RUTH: We were in Santa Fe, and we had been shooting Jessica all day. We thought we’d never get Sam, so Bruce was very upset. Then at five o’clock on the last day of the shoot, up walks Sam. It was like something out of a movie. The perfect golden light, his nails were clean, his hair was perfect — and I said to myself, “Oh yeah, right, this guy is coming up here and he thinks he’s not going to be photographed.” Jessica and Sam were madly in love, and the minute he got there they started touching and kissing. Before you knew it they were in front of the camera.
LEETA: How exciting. That must have been a great moment.
RUTH: It was wonderful. And I give Bruce all the credit. Photographers have to be analysts. They have to be very sensitive to instill a sense of trust. That’s a hard thing to do, particularly with celebrities who have a certain image to maintain.
LEETA: A very complex business.
RUTH: We’re all in the business of creating idealizations in one form of another. Even if the idealization is, “Let’s show how real this person is,” it isn’t real. That’s the interesting part for me. It’s all a fiction in one form or another.