The weird, wild world of Clifford Coffin

Four models in coloured bathing caps sit quietly and gaze into sand dunes in the 1 June, 1949 Vogue cover. This painting-like shot was taken by one whom a handful of admirers describe as the greatest “lost” Vogue photographer; Clifford Coffin, will be on display for the duration of ‘Coming into Fashion’ at The Gold Coast City Gallery. Coffin has one of the more intriguing backstories of the exhibition’s subjects.

“No-one ever felt Vogue fashion like Coffin did,” remembered Vogue’s studio manager. “He didn’t need an editor and didn’t give a damn about anything except his pictures.”

That he is so little-known outside the fashion world had much to do with his own ambivalent attitude towards self-promotion. He felt too that he never “fitted in”.

“He was a weird, wild man,” wrote Vogue model Wilhemina.

“He used to throw the editors down the staircase. He should have lived in the sixties. He was witty, bitchy and for the dull fifties shockingly so.”

When Coffin achieved what he wanted, financially and artistically, he slipped effortlessly from view, leaving his work in the offices of Vogue London and New York. He oversaw no exhibitions of his work nor produced, like many of his colleagues, books of his vintage photographs. Only one print has ever appeared at auction.

As his workload escalated (at one point, for his advertised work, he was one of the world’s highest-paid photographers), his health disintegrated and he suffered bouts of alcoholism and drug addiction. His chaotic and controversial lifestyle also hastened an early retirement. But his professionalism behind the lens has never been disputed.

“In his search for what he wanted he reduced his models to tears, fashion editors to desperation and himself to complete exhaustion,” wrote Vogue in 1966. “From the rubble of emotion emerged a perfect cool picture.”

His New York studio was destroyed by fire in the mid-sixties and nothing could be salvaged, so all that remains is his collection with Vogue which, after nearly fifty years in its archives in London and New York, deserves re-evaluation once more.

Clifford Coffin died in Pasadena, California, in 1972 aged 58, and his is just one of the fascinating stories and iconic images on display during ‘Coming into Fashion’, which runs from 25 November to 18 February.

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