Fashion photographer Roxanne Lowit, whose backstage photography and after-hours images captured the nerve and verve of the fashion industry, has died.
Her daughter Vanessa deferred comment Wednesday to Jesse Frohman, who said that Lovit, 81, died Tuesday. The cause of death at Westchester Medical Center in Valhalla, NY was not revealed. A memorial is being considered for a future date.
Unassuming with her all-black wardrobe, black-haired bob and petite stature, Lowit blended in so seamlessly wherever she was shooting that her subjects were immediately at ease. Low-key as Lowit was, she fully understood that glamour could be a form of currency.
“She created a genre. She created backstage photography. She was always an invited guest to all of these parties. She wasn’t an outsider. She was an insider taking pictures and she was able to capture these most intimate moments,” said longtime friend Brian Cashman, MD “With her eye, she was able to do it better than anybody else. Ten photographers would go after a shot, but hers was always the one that best captured that moment.”
“It’s important to always look fabulous,” she once explained to WWD. Lowit would know, having routinely shot Kate Moss, Christy Turlington, Naomi Campbell, Linda Evangelista, Shalom Harlowe, Helena Christiansen and the rest of the roster of high-profile models who helped define fashion in the ’90s. Lowit didn’t just zero in on all of the behind-the-scenes commotion, but she was also in on the joke. An image of Evangelista covering her eyes, Campbell covering her ears and Turlington covering her mouth mirrored the see-no-evil-hear-no-evil-speak-no-evil mantra and also reflected Lowit’s own way of life. Such double-edged humor was also clear in her series “VIP’s (Very Important Portraits) .”
Her 1990 book “Moments” chronicled the nights at Studio 54 and Le Palace in the ’70s and early ’80s. “People thought they would live forever. It was an incredible mix – famous people mixed with club people. Everybody was a star. It didn’t matter who you were – it mattered what you looked like,” she told WWD in 1990.
Sure, “there was always someone, who was going to get on the table and do something,” by her own account, but the onset of the AIDS epidemic shifted that revelry and leveled the artistic landscape. “These times changed everyone who went through Because of the AIDS crisis so many of the top people died. The scene is now incomplete. They were the young ones like Keith Haring. And the third-rate people will take their place,” she told WWD in 1990.
Speaking of that time, Lowit said, “Everything was more intense. Wealth was not so important as glamour. Each person had something on the line, but kept it hidden.”
Fashion designer Joanna Mastroianni recalled Wednesday starting what became a lifelong friendship with Lowit in February 1990. “I was a young designer, who was just starting out. She came over to my studio to photograph me with my newborn son for Vogue. I knew she was a star,” Mastroianni said. “This was the first time I was being photographed by a celebrity photographer. She was very soft-spoken and made me feel very comfortable.”
Recalling the good times the pair shared, the designer said, “Roxanne was always ready to play. I remember after a late dinner tagging along to an after party with her. There were the most interesting characters there. As soon as they saw Roxanne, they struck a pose. She was always the first photographer to arrive backstage at my runway shows. She very quietly tiptoed in and kept on photographing.”
In addition to shooting for Vogue for nearly 20 years starting in the early ’80s, Lowit also worked for Vanity Fair, Italian Vogue and other glossy magazines. Lowit’s portfolio also encompassed photos of leading artists like Warhol, Haring, Schnabel, Salvador Dali, Jean -Michel Basquiat, Eric Fischl and Kenny Scharf. “She wanted to capture her time and the amazing people of that time in fashion and in culture. Although she was not a Hollywood photographer, she was more of a fashion world photographer who captured the cultural and art scene. Anyone who mattered in her day, she recorded,” Frohman said.
Her family is managing Lovit’s archives while they decide what to do with them. However, an exhibition of her photographs is expected to bow at the Museum Cascais in Portugal in September 2023.
Before diving into photography, Lowit studied textile design at the Fashion Institute of Technology specializing in hand-screen printing. Working in textile design as a head designer, WWD reported on Lowit’s textile designs in the late 1970s. Around that time the New York City- bred Lowit was given an Instamatic camera. Painting was another pursuit, but Lowit discovered a more fulfilling vehicle and instant gratification through photography.
Lowit started out shooting some of her textile designs on the runways, and “the big photographers elbowed her out and the models took her backstage [as their hairdresser],” Cashman said Wednesday in a joint call with Frohman.
“She didn’t want to do runway pictures. She [thought] ‘They’re getting that. I want something special.’ She was an artist through and through,” said Frohman, a photographer who edited Lowit’s four books.
Karl Lagerfeld referred to Lowit as ‘the invisible of the visual, a witness to the marriage of vanity and fame…” Further testimony to her abilities was the fact that Lowit was Yves Saint Laurent’s photographer of choice for 24 years. His comfort level with her was clear, considering that she called him by his first name, whereas everyone else referred to him as Monsieur Saint Laurent. Lowit also photographed the notoriously camera-shy designer — as well as his collections — during that time. The mutual comfort level can be seen in a Lowit photo of Saint Laurent holding and kissing an architectural model of the Empire State Building. Another one features the bespectacled designer with locked arms around Lagerfeld — when the two men were still friendly.
Referring to her long run with Saint Laurent, Lowit told WWD in 2014, “He had an aura that nobody would pierce. Ever since I first met him, I wanted to do something on him because I so admired him. He did everything first and he changed the way that women dressed.”
Hundreds of her images of the designer and his collections are featured in her book “Yves Saint Laurent” that spanned from 1978 to his finale collection in 2002. A teenage Kate Moss reenacting an haute couture version of Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring” painting is among the prized shots. Jerry Hall, Pat Cleveland, Betty Catroux, Catherine Deneuve, and Lucie de la Falouse were among the many other fashion insiders Lowit photographed off-hours. In addition to her “Yves Saint Laurent” book, Lowit published “ Backstage Dior,” “Moments” and “People.”
After checking out her photos in the late ’70s, SoHo News cofounder Annie Flanders told Lowit that if she got a professional camera and shot the shows in Paris, Flanders would run the images in SoHo News.
“I learned how to put film in a real camera on the plane on the way over. Next thing I knew I was on top of the Eiffel Tower shooting with Yves Saint Laurent and Andy Warhol,” Lowit said in an interview with The Genealogy of Style. “It was all downhill from there because how could it get any better?”
In December of that year, when Halston threw a fantasy circus birthday for Steve Rubell that included giant stuffed animals, live ponies, toy soldiers and laughing clowns and a 75-piece marching band in December 1978, Lowit shot guests like Roy Cohn, Marisa Berenson , Barbara Walters, Truman Capote, Doris Duke and Cheryl Tiegs for WWD with Dustin Pittman.
People’s Revolution founder Kelly Cutrone on Tuesday recalled Lowit’s “amazing career” and how she admired the photographer, not just for her talent, all-black wardrobe and friendship, but also as a fellow single mother navigating the fashion industry. In addition to hiring Lowit for advertising projects and backstage assignments for Jeremy Scott and other designers, Cutrone, Lowit and the late photographer Mary Ellen Mark met for lunch on Fridays at Lucky Strike. “They never really got picked up enough by the women who were running those [fashion] publications. They never really hired women that much to shoot. That was really weird for both of them that they weren’t shooting more fashion,” Cutrone said of Lowit and Mark.
Explaining why Lowit was someone who she became friends with, Cutrone said, “She had a lot of the qualities that I wanted as a woman. She wore all black. She did her own thing. She kind of called her shots, but she was fantastic at what she did. And she was a fantastic mother to Vanessa,” Cutrone said. “She also had a sense of what was right and what was wrong. She never really went out of that lane. I really looked up to her because she was just so elegant and she traveled around the world.”
In addition to her daughter, Lowit is survived by her partner, John Granito, and two brothers, Daniel and Neil. Another brother, Bennett, predeceased her.