A model in a Gilbert Orcel emerald green hat and strings of amber beads serenely smiles in a picture taken in 1956 by William Klein. For most of us this is just another classic fashion image, one of those elegant headshots from a glamorous vintage magazine. Yet for writer John-Michael O'Sullivan it became one of the starting points for a wider research on a model forgotten by time - Barbara Mullen.
Seven years ago O'Sullivan started researching about her life after reading an interview with William Klein in which the photographer and director who loved and hated the fashion world, recounted meeting the Irish-American model living in Brooklyn who shared with him his disdain for rules.
Soon O'Sullivan's passion turned into an obsession that led him to rediscover images shot by famous photographers and portraying the model in elegant designs or exotic locations. What struck O'Sullivan was the chameleon quality of Mullen: as he stated in a piece he wrote for The Observer "her features seemed, in front of a lens, somehow morphed, endlessly transforming her into somebody else."
In some of the early images shot by Lillian Bassman (Mullen became her muse), she looks like an elegant swan; she is a sophisticated lady in a flaming red Herbert Sondheim chiffon gown in a 1950 Enka Rayon ad photographed by Francesco Scavullo; Norman Parkinson took instead a lushly coloured photograph of Mullen delicately balancing on an elephant in a Lanvin robe and satin trousers at the gates to the City Palace in Jaipur.
Mullen's dichotomic approach to the fashion world was embodied by Jerry Plucer-Sarna's photograph of the model in which she is potrayed dressed in elegant attire with a large half-moon hat on her head, smoking a cigarette with a hand and simultaneously trying to eat spaghetti in the most inappropriate yet irresistibly ironic manner, while defiantly staring at the camera.
Later images show a more carefree Mullen in a white swimsuit and simple ponytail sitting under a large white parasol, a slice of watermelon adding some bright colours to the composition (a Frances McLaughlin beauty shoot for Glamour, taken in 1954), or relaxing in Greece wearing a red, white and blue-striped hooded sweater by Dior (Lionel Kazan, 1956).
After she gave up her modelling career Mullen moved to Europe and opened a boutique in Klosters, a Swiss ski resort, where she sold designs by Pucci, Ungaro, Sonia Rykiel and Kenzo Takada (among the others).
In 1964 Gail Kernan (also known as Gail Garraty, original illustrator of Ursula K. LeGuin’s fantasy books), created a poster for her boutique featuring its owner in a turtleneck, her hair cut in a sleek Vidal Sassoon bob.
In the poster she looked like a modern dynamic woman, something she had anticipated in her fashion images such as the one shot by Joe Leombruno and Jack Bodi in the mid-'50s in which she donned a design by Rudi Gernreich for Westwood Knitting Mills.
O'Sullivan eventually tracked the former model down and met her in Switzerland where she lives with her second husband. The writer is still researching Barbara Mullen's life and fashion images, but he is also working on an ambitious project – a book about Mullen.
O'Sullivan has launched a campaign with Unbound, a new publishing house producing books by crowdfunding, and he is currently gathering the funds to print The Replacement Girl, Mullen's first biography. The title of the book is inspired by the name Lillian Bassman gave to her muse: Mullen was indeed a last-minute stand-in for a 1948 photoshoot.
Mullen's first appeared in magazines around 70 years ago, on September 1st 1947, and O'Sullivan is celebrating this anniversary (and Mullen's 90th birthday) by publishing on his Instagram page 90 pictures of the model by 90 photographers accompanied by lenghty descriptions featuring anecdotes about Mullen. The project will finish this week, on 1st September, but you will still have time in the next few weeks to support O'Sullivan's crowdfunding.
When did you start your research about Barbara Mullen and what prompted you to find out more about her?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: I first came across Lillian Bassman's pictures of Barbara in 2011. A year later, I read a William Klein interview which made her sound like a fascinating character. And it all really started from there; I kept coming across mentions of her in magazines and books, and finding more and more pictures online. The Observer commissioned me to interview her for their magazine in 2013 - and that encounter, when I got to know a little about Barbara, and was introduced to her incredible archive, is what triggered this whole project.
What fascinates you about the images featuring her?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: In the first instance, it was the sheer diversity of her work. In Lillian Bassman's pictures, she's this fragile, elegant ghost; when you see her being photographed by William Klein, she's a sophisticated clown. She responded to every photographer in such an individual way. In a time when most models had a very specific, defined look, she had a unique, chameleon-like quality. And she worked for such a long period, across two continents, that I'm constantly re-reading old magazines in my collection and spotting her in images that I'd completely missed - only a few weeks ago, I found a stunning colour shot of her by George Platt Lynes, that I'd flipped past several times before.
When did she appear for the first time on a fashion magazine?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: She first appeared in magazines exactly 70 years ago, on September 1st 1947; before that, she'd spent two years as a department store mannequin at Bergdorf Goodman. She started right at the top, in American Vogue, photographed by Richard Rutledge. Her first Vogue cover came a year later. She appeared on its cover four times in total - alongside eight covers of Elle, five of Bazaar, three of Glamour, and two each of British and French Vogue. And she retired in 1960, with occasional returns to the spotlight up to the mid-Sixties.
In your opinion, which photographer captured Mullen at her best?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: I actually love off-duty pictures of her, where you catch glimpses of the person behind the model. In terms of professional pictures, William Klein's are probably the most distinctive - though Barbara also did some terrific stuff with Toni Frissell, Lionel Kazan, Milton Greene, Jeanloup Sieff and Joe Santoro.
Which is the most famous picture we have of Barbara Mullen?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: It’s a tough call! But right now, the most famous one is probably the one Lillian Bassman took of her in Paris in February 1949, wearing a Dior evening gown. This spring, that picture was chosen for the cover of Harper's Bazaar's 150th anniversary book, and projected onto the Empire State Building for their anniversary party this spring.
What kind of impression did you have when you met her for the first time?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: I was expecting someone to match Lillian Bassman's pictures; instead, I found someone funny, earthy and self-deprecating, who's never taken herself - or her work - too seriously.
Did you discover any extraordinary anecdotes behind some of her pictures, or are there any mysteries you would like to unveil?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: It's an ongoing process! I'm forever interviewing people who provide new insights on pictures I've been familiar with for years. Legendary Vogue editor Polly Mellen remembered a shoot with Barbara and Karen Radkai on Coney Island, and Toni Frissell's daughter-in-law passed on a story about their Peru shoot, where Toni pushed Barbara into an arena in the middle of a bullfight to get the perfect shot! In terms of mysteries, there are so many. But I'm fascinated by the Jerry Plucer-Sarna picture, which I first spotted on Irenebrination; I'd love to know where that one came from!
The fashion world in which Mullen worked was radically different from the contemporary fashion universe: in your opinion, what's the best thing about that world that we have sadly lost?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: For me, I think what's most interesting about that world is, surprisingly, how similar it is to today's fashion landscape. Now, those mid-century photographers, designers, editors and models are legends, but at the time they were all youngsters, making it up as they went along. Not that different, after all, from their descendants today! In terms of something that's been lost, I think there was a very specific moment where a post-war financial boom enabled these youngsters to do incredible things, in a way that has perhaps never been replicated since.
Why did you decide to turn to a crowdfunding project to publish The Replacement Girl?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: It was out of necessity, in all honesty; we went through several mainstream publishers over the past four years, all of whom loved the story, but felt it wasn't commercial enough to publish. Each time, we tried to change the scope and focus of the book to make it more palatable to them. With Unbound, it felt as though we finally had the chance to tell the story exactly how we wanted it.
When do you hope to bring the book out?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: Provided we hit our funding target, it should come out in 2018!
You're also doing an Instagram page about Mullen, can you tell us more about it?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: Barbara turned 90 earlier this year. To celebrate her birthday, I gave her a book with 90 photographs, by 90 different photographers. And that's what triggered the idea of the Instagram posts; to reproduce those images, and give people an insight into the story behind each one, and through that, hopefully, to get people interested in the idea of supporting Barbara's biography. It's been a wonderful process, particularly in terms of making connections with other followers of mid-century fashion photography. I've been introduced to pictures of Barbara I'd never seen before, by photographers I'd never heard of, sent in by people from all over the world.
So far which is the most popular image of Mullen among your followers?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: Currently, it's a toss-up! There's the Norman Parkinson shot, taken in India in 1956, which features Barbara in Lanvin, balancing on an elephant; it was only ever published in Vogue Paris, and so I think it's taken people by surprise! The runner-up is an image of her in Dior by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, at the Arc de Triomphe, also from 1956. It shows a very modern side to both Dahl-Wolfe and Dior.
Would you ever do a documentary about Mullen if you had the chance?
John-Michael O'Sullivan: Two separate documentary makers have actually raised the idea already, but, for now, I'm trying to keep focused on Step One - the book!
Image credits for this post
Barbara Mullen in a Gilbert Orcel hat, photographed for Vogue Paris by William Klein, 1956.
Barbara Mullen, Blowing Kiss, photographed by Lillian Bassman, 1950.
Barbara Mullen, photographed by Jerry Plucer-Sarna.
Barbara Mullen in a poster advertising the fashion boutique Barbara's Bazar, which she opened in Klosters after she retired from modelling. Poster by Gail Kernan, 1964.
Barbara Mullen in Rudi Gernreich, photographed for Vogue in New York by Leombruno Bodi, 1955.
Barbara Mullen photographed by Norman Parkinson, Delhi, India, November 1956.
Barbara Mullen in a Talmack dress, photographed in New York's Gramercy Park by William Helburn, for a 1957 Supima Cotton advertisement.
Barbara Mullen in Larry Aldrich, photographed for Harper's Bazaar in Louisiana by Lillian Bassman, 1951.
Barbara Mullen in Balmain, photographed in Washington by Toni Frissell, 1953.
Barbara Mullen in Herbert Sondheim, photographed in New York by Francesco Scavullo, 1950.
Barbara Mullen in a ball gown by Christian Dior, photographed by Lillian Bassman, 1949.
Barbara Mullen in Dior, photographed for Elle in Greece by Lionel Kazan, 1956.
Barbara Mullen, photographed for Glamour on Long Island by Frances McLaughlin-Gill, 1954.
Barbara Mullen in Hattie Carnegie, photograhed by Richard Avedon, Vogue, February 1952.
Barbara Mullen photographed by Norman Parkinson, Delhi, India, November 1956.
Barbara Mullen and Ivy Nicholson in Jaeger pastel knit turtlenecks and contrasting tapered slacks, photographed by Henry Clarke for Vogue, 1956.