In Profile

Etheleen Staley and Taki Wise

BY Sarah Schmerler, January 1, 2012

When most people think of women in fashion photography, they imagine them in front of the lens, under carefully calibrated studio lights, wearing haute couture. But go to the Staley-Wise Gallery in SoHo, and you’ll find Etheleen Staley and Takouhy (“Taki”) Wise, two women who have devoted the last 30 years to promoting the people who have created fashion photography from behind the lens. Along their print rails are works by practitioners storied and new, from Harry Benson and Melvin Sokolsky to Mary McCartney and this month’s featured artist, Michael Dweck. All are tastefully arranged, sexy without being tawdry, and, of course, chosen with a spot-on sense for an image’s ability to cross over what has become an increasingly narrow divide (thanks, in part, to their efforts) between the commercial image and fine art. “Form, light, shadow, composition, and a certain sensibility,” says Wise. “Ultimately the message is: here is a photograph that is able to stand on its own; it has excellence—and identity.”

Staley and Wise each have a similarly strong sense of their niche in the market,though they arrived there from very different places. Wise, born in Teheran, grew up in New York and attended the Sorbonne and the University of Lausanne. Her jobs included secretary at the Ford Modeling Agency, stylist for Grey Advertising, and, until 1970, photo sittings editor at Seventeen magazine. Staley, born and raised in Detroit, was an English major at the University of Michigan who couldn’t wait to set foot in New York. It was at Grey, where Staley also worked as a stylist, that the two met, and they retained a friendship in the ensuing years. By 1980 the duo had hatched the idea of setting out on their own, says Staley. Wise, who tried a short stint at the ICP’s school, adds that her foray into taking her own photos only made the commercial path more clear to her. “I had worked with great art directors and great designers, and could see all that had to go together to make one great photograph.” The time, and market, was ripe for such a shift of perspective. “Archive” a new photo library spearheaded by Mary Ellen Mark, Charles Harbut, Joan Lifton, and others who had just left Magnum, offered to rent them a tiny space within their larger loft on Wooster Street. And the doorbell never stopped ringing. Their inaugural show was of iconic images by Horst P. Horst, followed by Louise Dahl-Wolfe, then in her 80s, who had had an illustrious career at Harper’s Bazaar, but never a show in a fine-art setting. Both drew crowds, sales, and most importantly, acceptance. Says Wise, “By our second Dahl-Wolfe exhibition we were on Prince Street in 1,000 square feet. Avedon came and brought Dahl-Wolfe a flower and knelt at her feet.” Today, their artists include Lillian Bassman, Bert Stern and Deborah Turbeville, among others. The two continue to share a single office and all the duties of running their space on 560 Broadway, and neither show any signs of slowing down. “Fashion work is everywhere, and it’s only going to become more and more accepted,” says Staley, freshly returned from Paris Photo. “It holds up with everything else, and what’s more,” she observes, “it’s beautiful.”