Like so many endeavors that produce a glamorous result, photographing the models for the SI swim-suit issue is an arduous process that leaves those involved little time to enjoy the romantic surroundings. Indeed, because the work is so intense and intimate, senior editor Jule Campbell takes personalities into consideration when she selects the year's models—and the photographer, for that matter.
Ideally, an SI swimsuit shoot should take six weeks or so, with each model brought to the location for about a week. Campbell has found through experience that two models sharing one photographer can be an infelicitous triangle. Often one of the women feels she's playing second fiddle. Sometimes both models think the other is being favored. So overlapping is kept to a minimum. And when it's unavoidable, Campbell says, "careful casting helps."
Just as she scouts for models all year long, Campbell also stays in touch with swimsuit designers. And she doesn't confine herself to well-known manufacturers. In 1987 Elle Macpherson appeared on the cover of SI wearing the very first suit that Lisa Lomas, an American designer, had ever made.
Each year Campbell chooses about 700 suits (all of which will eventually be returned to the manufacturers; there are no souvenirs) to bring with her on the shoot. She takes only size 8's, although even among the teeniest of bikinis there's considerable variance in how a garment fits—some 8's are too small and some too large for the standard size-8 model.
The models vary too. "Contrary to what most women think when they look at our models, they're not all perfectly proportioned," Campbell says. "Some have longer torsos and shorter legs, while others have more compact torsos and miles of legs. Some have wide rib cages, which may not sound like much, but it makes it difficult to define the waistline.
"And—women really can't believe this—you must have hips if you're going to look good in a swimsuit. Christie Brinkley has the best hips in the business. Sometimes a very young girl, say 16 or 17, has very slim hips, so we have to photograph her from the side."
Of course, Campbell has her own vision of what constitutes a good-looking swimsuit model, rejecting as she does the emaciated look that used to be de rigueur for high-fashion models. Her first cover girl, Sue Peterson, a California teenager, still had some baby fat on her, and when Campbell found Brinkley, her weight approached 140 on a 5'8½" frame. Campbell has occasionally astonished models (and endeared herself to them) by saying words that these women have never, ever heard before: "I might consider using you if you'll just put on about five pounds."
If the shooting location is a couple of hours from the SI crew's hotel, a day can begin as early as 3:30 a.m., for the first light is the most flattering. Campbell came to SI from Glamour magazine, where, at the time, most of the photography was done in studios, and at first she didn't appreciate how important it was to capture the early light. On her first swimsuit expedition, to Baja California in 1965, one of the models dillydallied and the dawn was lost. The photographer, Jay Maisel, turned to Campbell and snapped, "The sun doesn't wait for you. You wait for the sun." Campbell hasn't missed a sunrise since.
By nine or 9:30 a.m., even 8:30 near the equator, the sun is too high, and the soft morning light—silver upon the water—is gone, replaced by a glare that gives the models what are called "nose shadows" and "owl eyes" in the trade. At that point the SI troupe returns to its hotel for a late breakfast, fittings for subsequent shootings, and additional strategy meetings. Campbell & Co. also packs up the used suits and readies the props and the next batch of suits for the afternoon session. Shooting usually resumes around 3 p.m., when the light is warm, with oranges and golds in evidence, and work continues till the sun sets. It's rare for anyone on a swimsuit trip to get more than four or five hours of sleep a night.
Under these circumstances, it's almost incredible that three models have met prospective husbands while shooting the swimsuit issue. Kim Alexis met James R. Stockton III, a Florida real estate developer, in Kenya in 1981; they were married in 1983 and now live in Florida. Libby Otis married a businessman she first encountered in Puerto Rico during the '74 shoot in Palmas del Mar; their marriage ended in divorce. Peterson met and later wed Jack Olsen, the SI writer who was doing the travel story on Baja that would accompany the '65 swimsuit photos, though as a general rule, writers don't tag along on a shoot. The first time a managing editor ever showed up to watch swimsuit pictures being taken was in 1987, when Mark Mulvoy made an appearance.
In fact, in the early years it was rare for anybody but Campbell, the photographer and the model of the moment to be at the shoot. Since strobe lights have come into use, though, photographers have had to bring assistants along, and now Campbell also has an assistant, Ann Gallagher, on location.
During the quarter century of shoots, which almost always take place in the autumn, there have been no major disasters but many minor mishaps: a predictable number of run-ins with spiders and snakes; a van that almost slid off a cliff; a helicopter that crashed—no one was hurt—on Shell Island in Florida. "Tell me if they get too close," said John Zimmerman, a notably intrepid photographer, as he worked waist deep in the waters off Bora Bora with Campbell and a model in 1967. Campbell thought he was referring to some small fish feeding nearby. In fact, the turbulence Campbell saw was created by sharks. Zimmerman coolly got the photo he wanted—it made the cover—and then advised Campbell and the model that they had better hightail it for the beach.
Zimmerman has now shot seven issues, more than any other photographer; Walter Iooss Jr. has worked six. That these two, both regular SI photographers, have shot 13 of the bathing suit issues attests that Campbell likes to use sports photographers: Just as she sought a different type of model, so she thought that using photographers without a fashion background would bring a different look to SI's shots. "A sports photographer probably enjoys the work more than a fashion photographer, because it's a long way from shooting Mike Tyson or the Knicks," says Campbell. Occasionally, though, she mixes in one of her favorite fashion photographers, such as Marc Hispard, who shot last year's swimsuit issue and who has photos in this one.
A photographer will take as many as 25,000 pictures during the six weeks. Campbell and the photographer then winnow this huge inventory down to about 150 "selects," which are shown to the managing editor, who makes the ultimate choices.
In January, after the issue is closed, Campbell cleans up her office, answers stacks of accumulated mail, does interviews on the issue for radio, newspapers and TV, and begins work on the next year's swimsuit calendar. She researches locations, and once she and the managing editor have made a selection, she studies the site closely, looking not just for the obvious—scenic beaches and landmarks—but for indigenous colors and styles. She seldom employs props—except perhaps little boats, which she has a thing for. "Boats identify a particular region of the world," says Campbell. "In Tahiti they have the outrigger. In Kenya there are dhows. Palm trees and beaches look alike the world over."
Predictably, the two questions Campbell is forever asked are:
1) Why don't you use male models?
2) Why don't you use female athletes instead of female models?
1) "Our readers see good-looking males in SI all year long—often in shorts, or without shirts."
2) "As beautiful as many female athletes are, they are precisely that—athletes. They aren't models, and they would suffer by comparison. It simply wouldn't be fair to take them out of the athletic environment, in which they are trained to be graceful, and put them in front of a camera, where they are not trained to be graceful."
Campbell practices what she preaches. Not so long ago, after Cheryl Tiegs finished shooting for the day, she called Campbell over and asked the photographer to take their picture together, just the two of them, old friends of 20 years. Though Tiegs wanted the photo strictly as a keepsake, Campbell expressed some reluctance. "Are you crazy?" she said with a laugh. "Why in the world would I pose for a picture with Cheryl Tiegs?"