The Set That Came Alive

Mary Howard reflects on building worlds for fashion photography

Relapse Magazine

 Photograph by David Needleman

Photograph by David Needleman

On a quiet, dark morning in late January, where the rain seemed to hang in the air like tiny, wet balloons, a crew of four men hauled debris into the back of a pickup truck along the East River in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Four doors down, within a brick-lined duplex, a five-pound Maltipoo named Frodo yelped and scurried around the living room, her claws clacking against the wood floor. “She gets very excited,” explained Mary Howard, opening her front door, sweeping a ribbon of burnt-amber hair off her cheek. “And please don’t mind our home,” she continued, bending over to pick up Frodo. “Our entire basement was destroyed in Sandy, so the living room now acts as both.” Her voice seemed to be a product of the weather: slow, calm and soaked in a faded-but-not-forgotten southern drawl—that slouchy wetness only seen in southern Louisiana, her native state.  

    An open laptop and coffee cup sat on the dining room table, paintings hung on the living room walls, her 19-year-old daughter’s bedroom stood vacant from the start of a new college semester, and the white couch was softened from movie nights and naps with the dog. Howard, too, seemed as unassuming as her home: her hair in a low, loose ponytail; a black scarf draped around her neck; black jeans tucked neatly into knee-high leather boots. A women who, for what anyone could have guessed, was a schoolteacher down on the bayou, having an afternoon coffee and correcting papers on her laptop, waiting for the rain to break and the sun to fall into her kitchen. “Yes, they are my husband’s paintings,” she said, moving from the living room and into the kitchen, “but this,” she continued, pointing to a photograph of Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie holding hands in prayer with five children around a dinner table, “this was a gift from Steven Klein—from an editorial we worked on together for W back in 2005.” She paused, still staring at the framed picture. “We were on set and all of a sudden they grabbed each others’ hands and started to pray. And that was it. That was the photo. It was wonderful.” 

    The most prolific art director and set designer in modern fashion photography, Mary Howard has conceptualized and built sets alongside the most recognized, celebrated, and provocative photographers in the world such as Steven Meisel, Annie Leibovitz, Patrick Demarchelier, Mario Testino and Steven Klein; and has been a vessel for visionary editors like Grace Coddington, Edward Enniful, Karl Templer, Tonne Goodman and Camilla Nickerson. She has worked on over 50 editorials for Vogue Italia alone, and dozens more over the past two decades for American Vogue, W, Harper’s Bazaar, Elle, Interview, and Vanity Fair. She even designed the “T” for an issue of the New York Times Magazine in 2012, Frodo tucked neatly in the bottom corner of the photograph. Her hands also grip the advertising front, too, with campaigns for Louis Vuitton, Balenciaga, Miu Miu, Prada, Bulgari, Calvin Klein, Dolce and Gabbana, Jimmy Choo, and Vera Wang under her belt, among numerous others. “She is one of the key players, really,” confided Jimmy Moffat, President of Art + Commerce, which represents Demarchelier and Meisel, Howard working with the latter most often. “Executing their vision happens on set and Mary often times helps to conceive their vision.”

    Born and raised in New Orleans, Howard obtained her MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts at Rutgers University and subsequently moved back to New Orleans to design and build floats for Mardi Gras, one of her main inspirations for getting into art in the first place. Float design, ironically, landed her back in the tri-state area in the 1980s, working for Macy’s Special Productions, putting together the Thanksgiving Day Parade, the 4th of July, and other events. With this more applied, three-dimensional art experience, Howard eventually was able to make some props for production designer Marla Weinhoff, who, in recent past, has built live-performance sets for Lady Gaga. This led to working with photographer Richard Avedon, sparking her career in fashion photography. 

    The transition from performance design for floats to set design seen in a two-dimensional photographs (and through the eyes of a different person, the photographer) was a clunky, up-hill learning curve. “It took a long time to understand how to design for photography,” Howard explained. “I was always surprised early-on how certain colors, textures, and shapes translate on film. The camera lens and light are so integral to what I do. It really has been a huge learning process, and I am still learning.”

    The logistics behind designing, building, and executing a set, too, prove to be a constant challenge, especially as fashion editorials strive to be at the forefront of photographic expression. “I want to see the next photograph, not one that was done last year or ten years ago,” explained Howard. “Art is a pyramid; the new image is at the top and everything that has been done before is at the bottom.” Because of this, Howard executes a more unique approach to set materials, sometimes bypassing the handful of prop houses in New York to avoid having the same decorations as other photoshoots. “I’m a big flea market fan,” she confided to in a 2010 interview. “You’d be amazed at how well a dirty old chair shows up in a photo. I’m actually wary of using things that are too new and too pristine.” 

    A properly decorated set creates believability, a must for Howard, regardless of how imaginative the set design is. “I like to have something wrong with the picture. The eye has to travel, but I think it’s OK if it has to stop once in a while to all the surprising elements or the wrong thing. It should feel like a real place. I think if the world we create feels legit, this brings the viewer in and that can be a more exciting experience.” 

    But, with tight schedules, this extensive process is usually crammed into just a week, and leads right up until the photography crew comes in and starts to set up their lighting equipment. “Sometimes we won’t get props until ten minutes before the photoshoot starts,” explained Maggie O’Toole, who has freelanced under Howard for Vogue editorials and various advertising jobs. “But Mary deals with the stresses very well and is very determined and highly creative.” And, more often than not, changes have to be applied during the photoshoot itself. “It feels like you are in the trenches sometimes—things are happening so fast,” Howard confided, referencing a recent job with Steven Klein for Vogue, where they needed a prop to fill the top of the frame during the photoshoot. “I saw a tree outside and told one of [my assistants to] run and cut the branch and bring it back to me,” she explained. “Grace [Coddington] peeked around and yelled to me, ‘You aren’t cutting that tree, are you?’ I said, ‘We are in a war zone here!’ He brought it in, we raised it up, and it was perfect. Beautiful. It made the picture.” 

     It is that spontaneity and under-the-gun mentality that fuels Howard’s passion and allows her to work with the likes of Klein, Meisel, and Leibovitz, her heart thumping as the first look is dressed and the model walks on set. “That’s when all the surprises start,” Howard explained, “which is probably why I do this. I don’t want it decided beforehand. I really don’t think until the second shot do you know what your direction is going to be. It’s really the second picture—the second shot of the first day that you know.” She expanded on this thought for “I dream about that moment—the moment the set comes alive.” 

    In the end, though, Howard’s presence is a collaborative effort, working consistently with the photographers and stylists she most connects with. “[Howard and Meisel] connect creatively; they understand each other in a creative language,” explained Moffat of Art + Commerce. “He completely trusts her, and entrusts her to deliver something. They have an unspoken connection. We don’t need to go to a location, or some unbelievable place because we know Mary can do it,” Moffat continued. “It’s not an easy job. Mary is a wonderful person and she is incredibly creative.” Howard confided that her constituents on set admire and respect her creative direction, understanding it’s a crucial piece of the puzzle. “What is great about Steven Meisel is that [he celebrates] what all the different disciplines [of a photoshoot] do. [He allows] me to present to [him] what I think it should be. [He] respects that. In fact, [he] celebrates it.”

    Howard’s creative process differs for each photographer, adhering to their specific photographic style, outlook, and execution. “Context is everything,” Howard admitted. “If I am designing a set for Annie Leibovitz, I do keep in mind what she has done before, how she has approached this kind of setting, set, and subject matter before. Of course, she has a lot to say on what she wants to see in the set,” she continued. Case in point: Howard designed the set for Leibovitz’s “Wizard of Oz” editorial with Keira Knightley in 2005 for Vogue and, as Howard explained to, “Annie decided she wanted [the yellow brick road] to look like the Appian Way, a golden brick road with lots of moss. And then my job was to execute that. Annie sees it all in her head. I’m there to coax out the vision.” But things aren’t always so preemptive and deliberate for every photographer Howard works with. “For [Steven] Klein, he likes for the photo to have some tension and sometimes that can be created with the set elements,” Howard explained. “He can respond quickly to things that I literally throw in the set as we are shooting and incorporate them.” 

    Clothing is obviously a large component of Howard’s creative process. After all, these publications are geared specifically to fashion and the application of clothing. And, aside from the photographer, Howard works closest with the fashion stylist during a photoshoot. “I insist on seeing the clothes [before conceptualizing a set],” Howard said. “It’s crucial for me—to just see what the color pallette is, or how the clothes fall, or if the girls will be sitting or standing.” Tonne Goodman, Fashion Director at Vogue, who has worked with Howard on numerous editorials, agreed that clothes and art direction share a tight, symbiotic relationship. “If you ask Mary to produce a set, she needs to know why, and the clothes work with the environment in that way,” Goodman explained. “A shoot is a team effort. The set and atmosphere are very central for the person styling the shoot and vice versa,” she continued. “They go hand in hand. It is clothes, yes, but it’s clothes within an environment.” 

    A third dimension, especially for more high-profile photoshoots, is incorporating a celebrity or well-known model, most of whom have already substantiated a specific persona in the public eye. Howard, along with the photographer and stylist, have to take this into consideration on top of all the other elements of a traditional production. “If it is a celebrity or a supermodel even, I think the sets are made with it in mind: ‘What is the celebrity or this girl going to do in this picture?’” Howard started. “With the Madonna shoots I’ve done, I can imagine the way she would react to certain things on the set—just knowing who she is and knowing how she does things.” Versatility on set, too, for more experienced models, allows Howard to take more risks and gives more opportunity for her set to breath. “Working with Naomi Campbell or Linda Evangelista, those girls, they use the set. They work it,” Howard explained. “If it is a young model, you know, they won’t, so you have to help the situation and think of scenarios for them: different ways for them to sit using different pieces of furniture—just give them something to do, in a way.” Especially after Vogue’s Anna Wintour idealized celebritism within fashion in the 1980s and 90s, most of these supermodels were showcasing a more exuberant and well-thought-out presence in photoshoots and advertising campaigns. “By the nineties, fashion people definitely didn’t want to just look a clotheshorse anymore,” Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington wrote in her 2012 memoir, “Grace”. “It was all about charisma. And these girls showed more attitude and paraded their outsize personalities, whether it was on the catwalk, in a magazine, or in personal appearances.” 

    Boiling it all down, though, Howard’s presence is fairly straightforward: “I create the world around the girl,” she explained to “I shape the physical environment that surrounds her and help the photographer and the stylist and everyone else involved with the shoot tell the right story and make the girl pop.” And pop they do. Although her presence has a straightforward purpose, the effect it can produce is monumental. Howard has been involved in some of the most provocative and controversial fashion editorials in the history of modern photography. In a January 2013 article “A Recent History of Vogue’s Tone-deaf Editorials,” a smearing of 13 controversial editorials in Vogue’s preceding decade by New York Magazine’s blog, The Cut, Howard is credited with designing sets for half of them. The most recent, “Storm Troopers,” shot by Leibovitz and styled by Tonne Goodman, which depicts models Karlie Kloss, Joan Smalls, Chanel Iman, Arizona Muse, Liu Wen, and Kasia Struss amongst the wreckage and recuperation of Hurricane Sandy (Howard being a victim of the storm herself), was credited by The Cut as Vogue “momentarily acting without class.” Tonne Goodman, who styled the editorial alongside Leibovitz and Howard, wanted the story to be quintessentially New York, taking a risk with cultural commentary. “Working within that storyline—the first responder—we integrated New York City collections within a deeply-rooted New York City story.” And although there was no real set to be built, Howard’s presence on location was as integral to the outcome as an editorial constructed from scratch, helping to choose final locations out of the myriad of options. “All of our input was integral to that story,” Goodman explained. “Mary is not just building a set; [she is] working with the entire team to make the picture.”  

    But the fashion industry as a whole has been receiving these criticisms for years, even on the runway, such as Jean Paul Gaultier’s line from the early 90s, inspired by the traditional garb of Hasidic Jews. “The collection was extremely polarizing; people either loved it or loathed it,” Coddington wrote in “Grace”. “Some were even deeply offended by it, feeling that it caricatured and made fun of a serious religion. But once you deconstructed the ‘look,’ it was undeniably beautiful.” And, for a lot of Howard’s sets, she is making a similar cultural observation—a remark on the world in which we live in; on fine art, the foundation of her education; or even the nuances of everyday life, the things people sometimes take for granted. “I try not to look at too many things in the fashion industry,” Howard confided. “I think it’s better to find inspiration everywhere else. I should be able to look at things out in the real world and be influenced by them. Even driving around Red Hook just kind of clears my head and feeds me colors and forms and textures.” 

    As morning became afternoon in Red Hook on that day in late January, the sun still masked by a murky bundle of grey clouds hanging over Brooklyn, Howard knocked the excess water off her boots as she entered her house from the backyard, a square plot outlined in tall stalks of bamboo—its centerpiece, a self-sustaining pond outlined in chunky boulders, covered in ice and sleet. Frodo frantically paced at her feet, yelping for attention. Howard hung up her coat, adjusted her scarf, and knelt down to ease the dog’s energy. “This is my last day before I leave again,” she said, picking up Frodo and putting her on the white couch in the living room. “We are heading to the capital tomorrow for a job—Washington D.C.,” she continued, swiping wisps of red hair off her cheeks. “I can’t say much more about it, but keep an eye out for it. There are always new things coming out.” She brought her eyes to Frodo, a smile slowly creeping towards the edge of her jaw. “Always.”