On Feb. 28, when Glenda Bailey stands in the Musée des Arts Décoratifs of the Louvre, presiding over the opening of a new photography retrospective, “Harper’s Bazaar: First in Fashion,” it will mark her final act as editor of the storied magazine. Hearst, the publication’s owner, announced on Wednesday her move to become a “global consultant” after 19 years.
It will be a telling swan song. Not just because it will provide a showcase for the boundary-pushing photography that originally made the magazine famous — Avedon’s “Dovima With Elephants,” from 1955; Lillian Bassman’s “Blowing Kiss,” from 1958; Melvin Sokolsky’s “Fashion Bubbles” series from 1963, to name a few.
But because, in the contrast between what will be on the wall and what is often on the page, it will underscore just how much Bazaar changed during Ms. Bailey’s tenure as she shepherded the magazine into the era of Instagram and reflected its ethos. Which is to say, the era of eroding authority of glossies, the rise of the armchair influencer and the commodification of creativity.
The news of her departure has not sent the industry into the tailspin of “what now?!” navel-gazing that even the rumor of her rival Anna Wintour’s retirement provoked more than a year ago. Yet in many ways, Ms. Bailey’s tenure was likewise important.
Following the announcement, story after story mentioned her “whimsical” and surreal covers — Demi Moore atop a spiral staircase feeding a giraffe, photographed by Mark Seliger; Rihanna in the ocean, happily reclining in the mouth of a shark (Norman Jean Roy). But Ms. Bailey’s real skill — the reason she lasted so long — was being able to balance such high-minded homages to the magazine’s history with content that seemed, more and more, like an astutely art-directed catalog.
Doing so made the magazine accessible to larger numbers of readers. Dennis Freedman, the former creative director of W, noted in an interview that the pages were consistently shoppable. That arguably saved Bazaar from being crushed into nothing by the internet. But it also ceded what once had been very high ground, and dispensed with the most romantic notions about what fashion magazines can be.
In some ways, that has been the story of most mainstream glossies, Vogue and Elle included. It is of a piece with broader shifts in fashion and the chase for the widest possible consumer base, which by definition requires a sanding of aesthetic edges.
But the change of direction feels particularly pointed in the case of Bazaar, both because risk-taking editors and photographers defined its history and because Ms. Bailey chose to slide it forward down a different path.
From the 1930s through the ’60s, Carmel Snow, Alexey Brodovitch and Diana Vreeland worked with era-defining giants like Richard Avedon, Diane Arbus and Man Ray on features that took the building blocks of fashion — shape, silhouette — and transformed them into ideas and emotions, caught in a moment so powerfully that many of those images now reside in an assortment of museums.
Then, after two decades in the wilderness (or, really, supermarket checkout counters, which is where the focus went under Anthony Mazzola in the ’70s), the magazine returned to its glory in the ’90s under Liz Tilberis, who won ASME awards (the magazine world’s Oscars) for design and photography in 1993. They were the last such prizes the magazine would win.
“David Sims, Inez and Vinoodh, Craig McDean, Mario Testino, Juergen Teller, Terry Richardson, Steven Klein, all these photographers were at Bazaar first,” Fabien Baron, the magazine’s creative director under Ms. Tilberis, said in an interview on Thursday. (Many of the highlights from that era can be found in Fabien Baron: Works 1983-2019, a brick-size coffee-table book released this fall.)
Ms. Tilberis died of cancer in 1999 and was replaced for a tumultuous two years by Kate Betts; in 2001, Ms. Bailey took over, moving from inside Hearst, where she had served as the editor of Marie Claire, the company’s upper-middle-class alternative to Cosmopolitan. Ms. Bailey restored the famous logo that had been jettisoned by Ms. Betts. She also brought back Hiro, whose phosphorescent beauty shoots for the magazine under both Ms. Tilberis and Ms. Vreeland had been among the magazine’s high water marks.
But Ms. Bailey’s desire to make the pages more and more consumable, more service-driven, gradually altered the expectations and understanding of what photography in a high-end magazine needed (or didn’t need) to be.
It could even be an ad: Ms. Bailey ran Madonna on the cover of her September 2003 issue, with pictures that came from a new Gap campaign. Even by the ordinary standards of glossy magazines (where the relationship between editorial and commercial is increasingly porous), that was pretty brazen.
Some of her choices reflected the trouble of magazine wars and budget cutbacks. During Ms. Bailey’s tenure, the bulk of Bazaar’s biggest photographers — Patrick Demarchelier, Mr. Teller, Mr. McDean, Inez van Lamsweerde, Mr. Sims, Peter Lindbergh, Mr. Klein — went to Condé Nast, Hearst’s rival and Vogue’s owner, which has famously always had looser purse strings.
But most of the pictures that really became collectibles migrated, first to W (which won seven ASME awards for its photography during Ms. Bailey’s time at Bazaar); and then to the obscure fashion magazines being started by stylists and art directors for their own friends: Self Service, Mastermind, Ten, Muse. They were laboratories for visual experimentation, the kind of every-few-monthlies stocked not on newsstands but in museums and art-book stores, and priced like luxury goods.
In 2011, Ms. Bailey celebrated the images of her first 10 years at Bazaar by staging an exhibition of them at the International Center of Photography. She worked on it alongside Vince Aletti, whose writing about photography for The New Yorker and Aperture has made him a leading authority on fashion imagery. What appeared on the walls, he said in an interview, was something “I was not embarrassed by.”
Yet there was little question, he said, that “the magazine never had the ambition of the old Bazaar.”
Possibly it never could: The price of artistic aspiration — the drive to move the eye and mind and closet forward — is more often than not accompanied by a sacrifice in audience size. What is produced often seems too challenging, too weird. And audience is the pot of gold of the day. This is true for both fashion magazines and the industry they cover. It is part of the reason we see so much designer churn and lemming-like clothes. Everyone absolutely needs an ugly sneaker — until they don’t.
But another lesson from the contemporary fashion era is that when a talented designer dares upend the old order and received wisdom, dares hike the eye forward to where identity wants to go, it alters the landscape for everyone: See Phoebe Philo’s first collection at Céline or Alessandro Michele’s Gucci. And magazines do seem to have gone as far as they can go in imitating etail.
Maybe it’s time for the editors to give readers what they can’t get online: photographs (and words for that matter) that offer ideas big enough to last. Maybe, rather than lowering the bar to where readers are assumed to be, maybe they should raise it and trust readers to meet them there. Maybe a new decade, and Ms. Bailey’s successor, can give them that.
Maybe that’s wishful thinking.