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Remembering Gösta Peterson Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

4 August 2017

The fashion photographer Gösta Peterson, who died last Friday at the age of 94, began his career as an illustrator and that approach defined his photography. He didn't sell clothes. He imagined new worlds.

Born in Stockholm, he was raised in nearby Örebro before returning to the city of his birth to study illustration and graphic arts. Fortunately for him, Sweden was not engaged in World War II, so he was able to spend his youth working at Gumelius, an advertising agency.

After the war, though, a relative invited him to the U.S. so he left Gumelius with his portfolio of illustrations and the parting gift of a Rolleiflex. Legend has it that waiting for the train upon his arrival in the U.S., he worried about forgetting his portfolio so he took the precaution of sitting on it.

But jumping up to board the train, he forgot all about what he had been sitting on. A conductor later found it and had it shipped to him.

With that portfolio, he got a job as an illustrator at Lord & Taylor. At the same time, he taught himself photography by shooting on the streets of New York with that Rolleiflex. Soon he was getting freelance magazine assignments.

'I liked people with character, rather than girls who looked so pretty.'

In 1954, Peterson attended a cocktail party where he decided to start watering the house plants. That and his khaki pants caught the eye of the Times' fashion editor. They married that same year. It was his wife Patricia who gave his career as a fashion photographer a jumpstart.

His photographs persuaded Henri Bendel, where his wife had become vice president, to switch from drawings to photographs to illustrate its weekly advertisements in the New York Times.

That made his reputation as a fashion photographer, shooting on Thursday, delivering the prints on Friday for publication Sunday.

For the next 30 years, his work appeared in fashion magazines like GQ, Mademoiselle, Town & Country, and L'Officiel. But never in Vogue.

Vogue required photographers to shoot its own models and Peterson insisted on shooting his own. That's how he managed to shoot the first photos on U.S. soil of the European sensation Twiggy, where his wife arranged to have her met at the airport. And that's how he managed to make history with his photo of Naomi Sims, the black model no one would employ, that was featured on a 1967 New York Times magazine cover.

In its obituary, Vogue's Laid Borrelli-Persson diplomatically called Peterson "fashion photography's Lone Ranger," quoting the photographer, "I was famous -- or notorious -- for finding girls that didn't look like fashion models. I liked people with character, rather than girls who looked so pretty."

He directed those "people with character" to confront the camera rather than seduce it. "What resulted were mod photos that oozed personality; with a focus on composition and angular framing, his photos were daring, electric, and wholly original," wrote Sarah Nechamkin in her piece for The Cut.

Peterson retired in 1986. A retrospective of his work was exhibited in 2015 at the Turn Gallery in New York and has also been shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

He is survived by his wife and their two children.

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