Midcentury Majesty: Frances McLaughlin-Gill & Friends

Frances McLaughlin-Gill & Leslie Gill at Howard Greenberg Gallery

Working on the PWP Archives, one name kept cropping up in the early documents: Frances McLaughlin-Gill. From brief mentions, I gathered that she was one of the first members, had a successful career photographing for magazines, and was involved in a project about twins. Other than that, she remained a mystery, someone I hoped to learn more about, but never did.

So when PWP’s founder, Dannielle Hayes, sent an invitation for a show featuring her work, I was thrilled. Midcentury photographers are having a moment. There is the great Irving Penn show at the Met, and now Lives & Still Lives: Leslie Gill, Frances McLaughlin-Gill, and Their Circle at the Howard Greenberg Gallery. Much will be written by far smarter people, but I can share a few items from the PWP Archives that shed light on the spirit of the time and on the spirited life of Frances McLaughlin-Gill.

Frances McLaughlin-Gill and her twin sister, Kathryn, were born on September 22, 1919 in Brooklyn, and were only three months old when their father died. The family moved to Wallingford, Connecticut, where in 1937 Frances was valedictorian of her high school class, with Kathryn the salutatorian. Both twins enrolled at Pratt Institute where they studied photography, and in 1941, found themselves among the five finalists in the Vogue-sponsored Prix de Paris contest.

© Frances McLaughlin-Gill

© Frances McLaughlin-Gill

After working briefly as a stylist, Frances McLaughlin was signed by Alexander Lieberman in 1943, making her the first female fashion photographer under contract at Vogue. She flourished, bringing to her work a sense of movement and spontaneity that was in sync with the fast-paced time and the changing role of women in it. According to her daughter, Leslie: “Frances’s photos were based on improvisation. By placing her models in impromptu settings, she fostered a dynamic atmosphere of interaction between her subjects, the city and the viewer. At Vogue she was able to use this technic to realize her livelong interest: revealing modern woman’s complex role in society.”

In 1948, Frances McLaughlin married Leslie Gill, a photographer who worked closely with Alexey Brodovitch of Harper’s Bazaar, and was among the first to experiment with color film and the use of strobe. “Each flourished, though in different ways,” said their daughter, which made for a beautiful partnership that was far ahead of its time. There was a meeting of minds, as well as the synergy of their careers, each partner supporting and inspiring the other. It was very modern and progressive, and very much in keeping with the spirit of Frances McLaughlin-Gill.

Entering the Greenberg Gallery, you feel as if you’ve have been swept back to a vibrant Midcentury scene, where modern women, clothed like goddesses, float in a realm of sculptured light and regal silence. They are of the real and the imagined, conjured by photographers in whom a sense of elegance seems to have been innate.

Like the others in this group which includes Irving Penn, McLaughlin-Gill made images that resonate beyond fashion. Several were shot in a makeshift outdoor studio, and in the dappled sun and classic clothes, is the sense of a Cheever yard, the casual moment bearing a refinement seldom seen in print today. You imagine the models returning to the Barbizon after the shoot, or heading off for an evening at El Morocco. The couture gowns, the post-War energy and elegant people, the brash city stepping into its role as capitol of the world, these visions refresh yet make you long for a vanished time. It had magic, as did the photographers who captured it.

©Frances McLaughlin-Gill

©Frances McLaughlin-Gill

Some images are black and white, others in color; running through all is a sense of balance and portion that echoes the abstract paintings of the day. You feel their shared concerns: the need to energize the still life genre, to capture group dynamics without losing the air of regal calm, to integrate color without compromising form. They very much succeeded, and in their work is the sweep and majesty of lost and grander time. We appreciate, but also look back and mourn.

In 1958, McLaughlin-Gill’s husband died when their daughter was just three months old, repeating her father’s terrible fate. But with strength and art, she went on. She worked for Glamour, House & Garden, and British Vogue. She produced and directed independent films, and taught at New York’s School of Visual Arts where, according to master printer Sid Kaplan, “she was not liked, she was loved.” She also exhibited her images, participating in the 1975 landmark exhibition Breadth of Vision: Portfolios of Women Photographers at New York’s Fashion Institute of Technology. It was the largest show of its kind, featuring over a hundred female photographers, including Mary Ellen Mark, Susan Meiselas, Barbara Morgan, Eva Rubinstein, Suzanne Opton, PWP’s founder Dannielle Hayes, and Dianora Niccolini, PWP’s first president.

Roster of the 1975 FIT "Breadth of Vision" Exhibition (PWP Archives, Emory University)

Roster of the 1975 FIT “Breadth of Vision” Exhibition (PWP Archives, Emory University)

After the show some of the participants kept meeting, a group that eventually became Professional Women Photographers. According to Dannielle Hayes:

“Franny was an early PWP member in 1975 when we were still meeting in my living room. For the International Women’s Arts Festival, she helped organize our one day exhibit called WOMAN PHOTOGRAPHS MAN by arranging for a truck to pull into Rockefeller Center. We ran an electrical line from the AP office to the truck which powered two donated Kodak carousels and a dissolve unit, plus a funny tape that combined an interview with me, some music, and a singing dog. Rear screen projection showed five images by each of the women photographers. While none of the invited publishers stopped by, I was put in touch with an editor at William Morrow & Company, so packed up the photos, tape with singing dog, and marched off to meet her. Franny went with me. Within 20 minutes, we were talking about a contract. Franny said she’d never seen anything happen so fast.”

Cover of "Women Photograph Men" (PWP Archives, Emory University)

Cover of “Women Photograph Men” (PWP Archives, Emory University)

“The resulting book, WOMEN PHOTOGRAPH MEN, was published in 1977 and received much acclaim in the US and abroad. Each of the women photographers received $25.00 paid from the advance, plus a hard cover copy of the book. We had an exhibit at ICP (then uptown on 5th Avenue), and the photos are in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, as well as ICP.”

A few years later Hayes helped McLaughlin-Gill and her sister, Kathryn Abbe, put together their book Twins on Twins. All were included in Women of Vision, a book produced by PWP’s first president, Dianora Niccolini. Women helping women, making opportunities, moving ahead in large steps and small in a field where they were not always common or welcome.

PWP 1980 Feb-March Newsletter (PWP Archives, Emory University)

PWP 1980 Feb-March Newsletter (PWP Archives, Emory University)

Poking around the PWP Archives, I was finally able to put a face to the mysterious name. On the front of an old newsletter where she’s featured as an upcoming speaker, Frances McLaughlin-Gill is caught in mid-gesture and speech. The image is a poor reproduction on paper yellowing with time, yet her vitality leaps out. We don’t know what she’s saying, just that she’s definite and seems about to roar, either with laughter or advice. Her work is equally alive and speaks in a visual poetry of its own. It will uplift you. Go see it.

Lives & Still Lives: Leslie Gill, Frances McLaughlin-Gill, and Their Circle curated by Elizabeth Biondi be on view through July 7th at the Howard Greenberg Gallery, 41 East 57th Street, Suite 1406.

– Catherine Kirkpatrick

PWP 1980 Feb-March Newsletter (PWP Archives, Emory University)

PWP 1980 Feb-March Newsletter (PWP Archives, Emory University)

One thought on “Midcentury Majesty: Frances McLaughlin-Gill & Friends

  1. dianed

    this is wonderful Catherine. your blog is inspiring and i can’t wiat to see the exhibit. (I am amazed at how you follow through on a new discovery…how you keep following the thread until you have the complete story)


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