Gosta Peterson’s Bohemian Rhapsody: Unpacking a Photographer’s ’60s Secrets

Twiggy was among his famous subjects for glossy magazines, but the acclaimed fashion photographer also saw the world in a refreshingly original way—as his brilliant pictures reveal.

Gosta Peterson sits on the porch of his Long Island home and greets passersby. “Hi!” he shouts, waving dramatically as if to amuse himself. “I don’t know them,” he whispers to me. What the passersby don’t know is that the genial old Swedish gentleman with the unkempt lawn was one of the most rebellious and ferociously creative fashion photographers of his generation.

When the visitor enters his house in Amagansett, they are left in no doubt of Peterson’s impressive career. Propped up on a folding chair near the center of the room is one of his most iconic portraits— a full-body shot of Twiggy in 1967, superimposed on a close-up of her freckled face and saucer eyes. And then there is the greeting of Peterson himself; tall and broad-shouldered, his glasses perched on his wiry eyebrows, solicitously offering me watermelon.

GALLERY: Beyond Fashion: Models, Mischief, and The Amazing Eye of Gosta Peterson (PHOTOS)

In the pantheon of great fashion photographers, we often hear of Helmut Newton, Steven Meisel, Irving Penn, and Richard Avedon. But while he was one of the most respected fashion photographers of his day, Peterson, now a spry 91, has been largely overlooked by history. His work, which will go on show at Manhattan’s Turn Gallery next month, was a daring departure from the static images of supermodels, posing with their hands on their hips, all classically beautiful, graceful, and coquettish—and all indistinguishable.

The women Peterson photographed were offbeat, eccentric, irreverent, and not conventionally pretty. While most models flirted with the camera, Peterson forced his subjects to confront it.

He bought his summer home with his wife, Patricia, in 1958. It sits on a modest plot overgrown with wild grasses and shrubbery. Next to the manicured lawns and private hedgerows shielding sprawling Hamptons homes from gawkers, the Petersons’ property looks neglected. (The state once tried to force the Petersons to trim the 4 feet of timothy grass and Queen Anne’s Lace in front of their house, for reasons Peterson finds too foolish to articulate, though they successfully argued that the overgrown grass was “part of their garden.”)

Peterson is wearing a crisp white-and-blue striped shirt and fraying paisley ascot. The house is gently tattered, with the feel of an artist’s studio. Even the watermelon he serves me is in keeping with a certain aesthetic—perfectly arranged squares, like a Mondrian painting.

“Gus did everything with a sense of humor and naturalness,” says Linda Rodin, the style icon and skincare mogul, who was his assistant in the mid-’70s. “I wanted to be a fashion photographer, and all of the pictures I tore out of magazines were Gus’.” She credits Peterson as a major influence in her life and career. “He was a total inspiration to me in every way, from the way he dressed to his taste in music and art. And as a photographer, nobody is better than Gus.”

Peterson’s lack of renown can perhaps be attributed to his lack of interest in the wider fashion scene. “I didn’t care much for that stuff,” he says, in his light Swedish accent, with a dismissive wave of the hand. “I followed the art photography. I was interested in composition and attitude.”

His obsession with technique and composition is apparent. We look at a photo framed to echo the graphic design of a model’s dress. She leans forward on a horse, one hand on its neck, the negative space between her arm and torso reflected in the garment’s parabola-shaped print.

Another image of twins sunbathing awkwardly in the desert—one leaning against a palm tree, the other on her twin’s knees—is more memorable for its striking composition than for the bathing suits or nubile bodies.

Born in Stockholm in 1923, Peterson grew up in Örebro, a city in the heart of Sweden, later returning to Stockholm to study and work as an illustrator for an ad agency. He didn’t come from a family of artists (“my father was a businessman and my mother took care of me and my brothers,” he says), but his parents encouraged his talent.

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He moved to New York in 1948 and was hired to sketch fashion designs for Lord & Taylor. But he grew intolerant of clients tampering with his illustrations. “I didn’t want to work with these damn people who scribbled on my drawings. I liked to have control.”

And so, armed with a Rolleiflex camera and a desire to travel the world, Peterson became a photographer instead. “I took some samples, mostly of children. Soon I was taking pictures for magazines.” He traveled to China, India, Russia, and Africa for fashion-related assignments. Over the next 50 years, his work would appear in The New York Times, Mademoiselle, Esquire, Town & Country, House & Garden, Depeche Mode, L’Officiel, Harper’s Bazaar, and other fashion glossies. “But not Vogue. I had trouble with Vogue because I photographed a lot of people who weren’t really models. But they were interesting because they had an attitude.”

Many of Peterson’s photos evoke humorous or dramatized scenarios: a fur coat-clad woman in a German casino, looming over her lover and barking in his face; a glamorous elderly lady in the back of a car staring contemptuously at her decidedly unglamorous granddaughter.

Peterson also frequently photographed impish, precocious children and often made them seem adult in their expressions of seriousness and neuroses. These images are subversive and, like Diane Arbus’ photos of children, evocative of the tension between innocence and corruption.

Peterson credits his wife, Patricia, whom he married in 1954, with jump-starting his career. They met at a cocktail party in West Hampton. “I noticed him because he was in khaki pants and a nice white shirt and was watering the flowers, which I thought was unusual,” she says. Patricia was fashion editor of The New York Times before she became vice president at Henri Bendel’s, which replaced its traditional ad campaign illustrations with photographs when they hired her husband to shoot a weekly advertorial that ran as a half-page in The New York Times, helping establish his reputation.

“Gus is very much an anti-fashion fashion photographer,” says Jan, his son and full-time manager, as we leaf through piles of Gus’ pictures. “Other photographers at the time were into the proper fashion photography: pretty girls or anything that was flashy or sexy. Gus didn’t really care about that shtick. He cared about the girls’ personalities and he liked things that were awkward. He was not a technician. Others would shoot with their crisp lenses, but Gus’ methods were more haphazard, though he was very specific in his style and approach.”

Peterson shows me a portrait of Salvador Dalí he shot for Esquire, pointing to the mess of straws, chopped wood, and sugar strewn at the artist’s feet. “This is pretty much what he wanted. Crazy man,” he mutters. “But he was a big personality, so I followed his direction.”

Peterson looked up to Lillian Bassman, another leading fashion photographer whose studio was around the corner from his on the Upper East Side. “I kept an eye on her.” Who else? “Mostly the Americans—Avedon and Penn. They were very mature photographers.” (He excitedly recalls running into Irving Penn at an exhibit at the MoMA early in his career. “I walked up and introduced myself and he said, Gus Peterson! I love your pictures!”)

When pressed for personal details about his life (Did he have dalliances with his models? Was he friends with other well-known photographers?), Peterson fixes his sharp eyes on me. “What a question!” he roars. “No, I was never with models.” Nor did he have a posse of fashion photographer friends. But he was pals with Bill Cunningham, the New York Times master-photographer of street style, and the two remain close today. “Bill is very smart and very active. He doesn’t miss anything.”

And Cunningham’s late-career success is rare. “It’s almost a set age when you get out, even if you’re good,” he says. “I’m not sure why.” Peterson retired 18 years ago. “I had a bunch of friends, they’re all gone now,” he says matter-of-factly.

When I ask Peterson whose style he admired, he says the actor Clark Gable’s, though he adds, “But I don’t know—I’m not into judging like that. I don’t think of these things very much.” This turns out to be untrue. Peterson, his son Jan tells me, designed many of his own clothes and had them custom-made in London.

Peterson is remarkably unsentimental. Did he ever find one model he had worked with more beautiful than any other, I ask. An emphatic “No. Beautiful models are boring.” Had he heard of Cara Delevingne? “No. I don’t care for the models today. Today’s fashion magazines are boring.” What’s boring about them? “Everything.” Does he miss working? “Not particularly. I now collect my own pictures, blow them up, exhibit them in Europe and here. I’m busy.”

Peterson’s daughter, Annika, is preparing an upcoming show of her father’s work at Turn Gallery in Manhattan, while Jan is working on digitizing Gus’ portfolio, including many photos that have never been published.

“He’s very particular about things,” Jan tells me, especially when choosing images to run in publications like this one. “He’s very involved in style and used to refuse to print pictures if he didn’t like the outfit. And I don’t think a lot of photographers think that way these days. But Gus always insisted on what he thought was right as an auteur.”

On the porch, before I go, Peterson looks at me through the lens of a small digital camera before training it on his front lawn. “I didn’t like the Queen Anne’s lace at first,” he says, dropping the camera to his side. “I thought it was an odd blend and wanted to see more of the timothy. It’s so pretty with its long tails.”

As I walk away from Peterson’s house, and all the vivid stories and treasures inside, something Jan said to me about his father reverberates. “What’s interesting about Gus is that he’s kind of under the radar. He didn’t push himself in any way, he just quietly disappeared. Photographers know him, but the public…not so much.”

'Gosta Peterson From The Archive' is on view at Turn Gallery in Manhattan from January 24 through March 8, 2015.