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Arthur Elgort '64, Who Applied a New Lens to Fashion Photography, Receives Honorary Doctorate

Photographer Arthur Elgort ’64 is widely known for changing the face of fashion photography. His signature style, adopted when he launched his career after graduating from Hunter, took models out of the studio and into the real world. In the process, he transformed our concept of the “modern woman” representing models as bold, dynamic, and fully engaged with life rather than blank, motionless mannequins.

Elgort has drawn accolades from critics and artists for decades and received a new honor in October, when Hunter President Jennifer J. Raab presented him with an Honorary Doctorate of Humane Letters. Elgort was joined at the ceremony by his wife, the opera producer Grethe Barrett Holby; his sons, Warren, a filmmaker, and Ansel, a singer and film star; and his daughter, Sophie, a fashion photographer. In his remarks, Elgort shared fond recollections of his days on campus and the many professors who encouraged him. “This is an incredible honor for me,” he said, moved to tears.

A native of Washington Heights, Elgort came to Hunter with a plan to major in painting and art history. Like many of today’s Hunter students, he worked his way through school, waiting tables and ushering performances at Carnegie Hall. He did well in his painting classes, but found his true calling when he purchased his first camera. He soon became the go-to photographer on campus, taking pictures of the fencing team at practice and dancers during class. He was one of just a handful of male students on the Manhattan campus after it first went co-ed, and his photographs caught the spirit of the bright, ambitious young women attending Hunter. That experience undoubtedly influenced his approach to photographing women, as well as his later relationships with female colleagues, several of whom attended the honorary degree ceremony and, in a panel discussion, celebrated Elgort’s support and impact on their careers.

“You brought such freshness and life to fashion photography,” said Grace Coddington, who worked closely with Elgort when she was an editor and creative director at British and American Vogue.

Sonia Kashuk, the leading cosmetics entrepreneur who got her start as a makeup artist working with Elgort, called him the “helping hand who changed the trajectory of my life.” Marianne Houtenbos, Elgort’s longtime agent and friend, described their partnership as one of true collaboration, whether they were arranging photo shoots or working on one of his many books.

And Christy Turlington, who first met Elgort when she was a 16-year-old model new to New York City, shared stories of traveling the world with him. She remembered how he made every photo shoot a joyful learning experience that might include discovering new music or exploring local cultures abroad.

While the honorary degree ceremony was a special experience for Elgort, it was also an exciting opportunity for several members of the Hunter community to meet and honor a man who has so profoundly influenced their field. Current IMA MFA student Benjamin Ohene-Gyeni, who has made a documentary film about what fashion means to people, joined with Professor Reiner Leist, an acclaimed photographer, to drape Elgort’s doctoral hood. BFA student Fatma Elgohary, this year’s winner of CUNY’s Making Work Visible prize in Visual Art, and Muse Scholar Adam Tulibacki, a freelance photographer, bestowed Elgort’s degree.

Elgort urged today’s Hunter students to take full advantage of their college experience, crediting his success to his formative experiences at the College. “Hunter is a wonderful institution; you learn so much here. It is where I learned what I was going to become.”

At the ceremony’s end, a student who, like Elgort, grew up in Washington Heights, asked him whether he had any advice for today’s aspiring artists.

Elgort’s answer was simple: “Do Hunter.”

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