Alumna Mary Howard pioneered the art of photography set design—creating alluring worlds in which top celebrity and fashion photographers make their iconic images.
When anticipation gets to the boiling point as we await the Academy Awards in late February, some relief comes within the Hollywood Issue of Vanity Fair, the magazine’s annual prelude to the Oscars. For 23 years, the issue has featured, with rare exception, the portraits of photographer Annie Leibovitz, whose signature gatefold covers open onto tableaus of breathtaking elegance and beauty and glamour. Naturally, our eye first seeks out the faces, and clothes, of the movie stars. But the impact of their appearance wouldn’t be the same were it not for the settings in which all this human perfection has been arrayed. Leibovitz knows it, and that is why she has always leaned heavily on alumna Mary Howard.
For 28 years, Howard MGSA’83 has been at Leibovitz’s side, serving as her set designer, a job that Howard helped pioneer in the fashion and celebrity photography industries in the early 1990s. It’s an all-encompassing vocation. With the exception of “the talent” and what they are wearing, Howard is responsible for everything appearing in a shot, creating environments in which the world’s top photographers can work their magic. The settings may have been fabricated at Mary Howard Studio, her production and photography set design company in Brooklyn, New York, or at the locations themselves, but there is no forgetting them.
Howard’s skill is abundantly evident in this year’s Hollywood Issue, which was shot at the iconic Paramount Pictures studio. “Working there was cool,” says Howard, who received an M.F.A. in painting and performance art from Mason Gross School of the Arts and who was deeply influenced by the Fluxus performance art movement, which took hold at Rutgers. “We did lots of scouting and ended up using old sets or the edge of a stage or an alleyway—scenes where so many historical films have been shot. And it was fun to be around the actresses.”
Being in the company of world-famous people, and jetting worldwide to photograph them, is old school for Howard, whether working with Leibovitz or fashion photographer Steven Meisel, her other major client. Recently, she was in New York City with Leibovitz to photograph Amy Schumer for the July 2016 issue of Vogue and went to the White House to photograph Michelle Obama for the magazine’s December 2016 issue.
Leibovitz and Howard collaborate on an average of two to three photo shoots a week, part of the 600-plus jobs that Mary Howard Studio cranks out annually, requiring a fabrication shop to build sets and two warehouses full of couches, chairs, stools, rugs, lamps, and all manner of accessories. The props, most of them suggesting a patina of age because they reproduce well in unforgiving digital images, are necessary because Howard lends her talents to other leading fashion and celebrity photographers. With a staff of 10 full-time employees and dozens of freelancers, the studio must be able to keep up with the frenetic pace of an insatiable industry.
“Each week, our studio gets to be involved with at least one or two cool shoots,” says Howard, a native of New Orleans who is married to painter Mike Howard GSNB’76, whom she met at Rutgers and who is a big influence on her art. “It’s exciting to work with such iconic photographers. It can be challenging, but once the shoot is done, we all feel such a huge sense of accomplishment.”
Today, the magazine industry supports hundreds of such set design companies. But in the early 1990s, Howard stumbled upon the industry. Up to that point, photographers didn’t give the idea of fabricating a backdrop much consideration, if any. While working at Macy’s, building floats for the Thanksgiving Day Parade and later producing it, she began assisting artist Marla Weinhoff, leading to their introduction to photographer Richard Avedon, who wanted to create a beach setting for a studio photo shoot. Howard and Weinhoff fabricated a beach environment, complete with sand dunes, which became part of the 1993 groundbreaking Versace advertising campaign. Howard’s life was never the same.
“I am creating a world with these photographers in which they are conveying a story, one where the action on the part of the model or celebrity can take place,” says Howard, who opened her own studio in 2003. “We even call the work ‘stories,’ because even if it is for an ad, it still has to have that feeling of narrative. To me, it is the physical set that does tell the story. And to me, the most successful shots have a lot of ‘set’ in them.”
Howard says that collaborating on editorial work is usually more fun than fashion photography, just because she and a photographer have more creative leeway. For fashion imagery, it’s all about the merchandise and the models; the set can’t steal the show. Nonetheless, memorable images of any kind all have a certain something. “A great photograph has the element of surprise,” says Howard. “As a visual artist, I am most seduced by the beauty of it. And, as [the late fashion columnist] Diana Vreeland said, ‘the eye has to travel.’ You have to find enjoyment in your eye taking it all in, even if there is something wrong with the picture. That, to me, is super interesting.”
In a digital age, in which images are everywhere and disposable, Howard wants to be part of a shot with lasting impact, whether it’s grounded in historical realism or takes flight in fantasy. “Every job is different because of the client, whether it’s Vogue or Prada or the photographer who wants to bring his or her voice to the picture,” says Howard. “There are a lot of cooks in the kitchen. So, it’s that fine line of being able to help them realize what they need to have and still being able to enjoy myself and make beautiful things and bring a little bit of myself to it.”
Howard tops off her artistic tanks whenever she can, shopping at flea markets, looking at art, even walking the streets of her Brooklyn community of Red Hook, “an encyclopedia of surfaces.” When work beckons, she goes to great lengths to research images of a subject and to understand what the photographer expects from a shot, particularly its lighting, the biggest factor influencing her own preparation. And then it’s time to round up sets, props, and effects and transport them—all to be quickly arranged on the other end, right up to the time of a shoot. As Howard assists the photographer, her talent is revealed as much through what she leaves out of a shot as what she puts into it. And with a maternal instinct that she wears lightly, Howard, who has a grown daughter, is adept at putting models at ease, moving them into different positions for the photographer’s consideration.
A self-described perfectionist, Howard considers all the demands a small trade-off for having such a gratifying career. Clients who know her best will tease Howard by making an outrageous request, which she is always eager to accommodate: “‘Oh, you want a helicopter carrying an elephant to drop into the shot? Sure. We can do it.’”
Given what Howard has pulled off during her remarkable career, who would put it past her? •
To view Mary Howard's portfolio, visit maryhowardstudio.com/mary-howard.
Watch the video below as Mary Howard talks about production design.