The Family Portrait
A snapshot of life in photographer Mr Arthur Elgort’s New York studio – with his actor and filmmaker sons very much in the picture
From left: Messrs Ansel and Warren Elgort
“They both like pretty girls for some reason,” says Mr Arthur Elgort of his two sons, Messrs Ansel and Warren Elgort. He glances around the snug ante-room above his cavernous SoHo studio, hung with a hundred photographs, many featuring the world’s top supermodels such as Mses Cindy Crawford and Linda Evangelista, and a topless, tousle-haired Ms Christy Turlington. He flashes a smile. “I wonder why?”
The 76-year-old fashion photographer made his name shooting for British Vogue in the 1970s, working with the magazine’s creative director Ms Grace Coddington, and, in the process, forming close friendships with the original supermodel sorority of the 1980s and 1990s. Credited with popularising the journalistic-style snapshot – natural light, lots of movement, getting his models out of the studio and into the streets – Mr Elgort became one of the most celebrated photographers in the business. His images of Ms Kate Moss atop an elephant in Nepal, and Ms Stella Tennant diving into a swimming pool, dressed in heavy tweed and wellington boots, are hung in museums including London’s Victoria and Albert. In 2011, after more than 40 years at the forefront of fashion, he was given the prestigious Board of Directors’ Tribute Award from the Council of Fashion Directors of America (this year awarded posthumously to Mr David Bowie).
Mr Arthur Elgort (centre), with Messrs Ansel and Warren Elgort
Mr Arthur Elgort’s favourite subjects, however, are his children. “They have always been my best models,” he says. “And photographing them all the time meant I got to know them very well.” He even wrote a book on the subject, Camera Ready: How To Shoot Your Kids. The face of his younger son, Mr Ansel Elgort, 22, the breakout star of movies including the Divergent series, Paper Towns, and The Fault In Our Stars, all adapted from bestselling young adult books, adorns the front cover. Both boys have decided to pursue careers on either side of a lens: Mr Warren Elgort, 26, is a screenwriter and director of documentaries and short films, with his own production company. Their elder sister, Ms Sophie Elgort, 30, meanwhile, followed her father into photography.
These days, Mr Ansel Elgort’s face can be found on the covers of US GQ, Vanity Fair and Teen Vogue and, after the first Divergent film made nearly $300m worldwide, he is bankable. So what has he learned from his father about fame? To treat everyone with respect, including strangers. “It used to confuse me when I was little, but now I try to do the same thing,” says Mr Ansel Elgort, sat at a round coffee table strewn with half a dozen of his father’s digital and film cameras. “I have a group of fans who wait for me at the airport. I know all their names, and always try to have a chat with them – everyone is a human being.” Even as a child, Ansel assumed the doorman of their apartment in an Upper West Side building was a family friend because of the way in which his father greeted him. “I had friends who didn’t even know their doorman’s name, which I found so weird.” He applies the same approach on set. “Some people will only go to dinner with other actors; I like to go to dinner with the camera crew,” he shrugs.
“Ansel has never acted as if he was a star,” says Mr Arthur Elgort, proudly. “People do recognise him sometimes, if he doesn’t wear his hat, but he still uses the Subway.”
Growing up an Elgort meant female beauty was everywhere and Mr Elgort Snr was ready to hand out the advice. “He would tell us: find a nice girl, but make sure she’s pretty. And make sure her mum is pretty, too,” laughs Mr Ansel Elgort, who has been dating Ms Violetta Komyshan, whom he met in high school, for four years.
His fame is his brother’s gain. “Having a movie star for a brother means you get set up with a lot of girls,” says Mr Warren Elgort. “Girls will show interest in him, and he'll say, ‘Well, I have a girlfriend but my brother is single.’ It’s a great system.”
Later this year, Mr Ansel Elgort will star in The Billionaire Boys Club alongside Mr Kevin Spacey, and he heads up a cast including Messrs Jon Hamm and Jamie Foxx in next year’s Baby Driver. He has started to eclipse his father, at least among his peers. “Ansel goes to the Met Gala now, but they don’t invite me anymore,” says Mr Arthur Elgort, with faux self-pity. “And if we put the same picture on Instagram, he gets, like 37,000 votes, and I get maybe two.”
Mr Arthur Elgort studied painting at Hunter College in New York, but found the art form lonely and dirty. “My nails were always filthy, I could never get the paint off,” he says. So he began taking photographs instead, using female students as models. Many of his early pictures were of dancers. “One of my girlfriends was a dancer, so I would go and sit in the doorway and practice,” he recalls. “I loved that, but I realised I wouldn’t make any money. So I said, ‘What’s the closest thing to that? Fashion.’”
“He led us to believe that he was a really clean-cut guy,” says Mr Ansel Elgort. “But I’ll run into people who will say: ‘Oh, your Dad, he was the one with the really good weed.’ I’ll be like, ‘What are you talking about?’ He would always tell us never to smoke weed, that it was poison and it would ruin our lives.”
“I didn’t get married until I was 44 years old,” says Mr Arthur Elgort. “I fooled around a lot, I had a lot of girlfriends. And all of a sudden, I wanted a family, I was ready for kids.” With his wife, Ms Grethe Barrett Holby, an opera director and choreographer, he raised their three children. The SoHo studio acted like an extension of the family home. “I have other friends with artist parents, and lots of them were raised by nannies,” says Mr Ansel Elgort. His father, by contrast, was incredibly hands-on. Family friends of the Elgorts included the hair stylist Mr Christiaan Houtenbos, who still works with Mr Elgort Snr, and his wife, Ms Marianne Houtenbos.
“Most of the people who were around a lot when we were kids were people my Dad worked with, his assistants – he always hired cool people,” recalls Mr Warren Elgort.
Ambition and pursuing one’s passion were highly valued. “He always told us: ‘If you do what you love, and you work really hard at it, then everything else will follow,” says Mr Ansel Elgort.
“He secretly wanted us all to be performers, though,” adds Mr Warren Elgort, who became a college tennis champion instead.
“Gene Kelly is his favourite person of all time,” says Mr Ansel Elgort, who, more in keeping with Mr Arthur Elgort’s ambitions, from the age of nine to 14, attended the School of American Ballet. “I wanted to be in musical theatre on Broadway. I took ballet because it was the necessary step to getting to Broadway.” While Broadway is yet see Mr Ansel Elgort’s name in lights, he got his film break in the 2013 remake of the Mr Stephen King horror story, Carrie, starring Ms Chloë Grace Moretz.
How did he prepare for the cut-throat world of Hollywood? “I was never too worried about failing; I knew Dad had my back,” says Mr Ansel Elgort. “He actually thinks that being an athlete is tougher, because there can only be one winner. But if you are an actor, he believes, there is a role for everyone.”
“He’d say, ‘Don’t worry about making money. But do buy real estate. And a Mac machine [sic].” Mr Ansel Elgort has recently bought a brownstone house in Bed-Stuy, a rapidly gentrifying area of Brooklyn. “I can’t afford to buy a property,” says Mr Warren Elgort. “But I am getting Ansel’s old couch, because he is buying a better one.”
Five years ago, Mr Arthur Elgort suffered a severe stroke, paralysing the right hand side of his body. Mr Ansel Elgort was 17 and still at Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts, the school on which the musical Fame was based. The brothers visited his father in hospital every day for five weeks. Father-son roles were reversed for a time, as Mr Arthur Elgort relied heavily on the family to help him perform routine tasks. “He needed help with everything – having a shower, getting dressed, telling the cab driver where he lived,” recalls Mr Warren Elgort. “He couldn’t even press the button on his camera with his right hand. He had to do it with his left hand, or ask someone else to do it for him. We were a close family before, but that definitely brought us closer.”
“Both of the boys pushed me in my recovery,” adds Mr Arthur Elgort. “I started to rely on my left hand for everything, but they would force me to try and use my right hand. They were insistent that I would get better, no matter what.”
As he recovered, he had to re-learn the most basic skills, such as talking and feeding himself, and while his ability to hold a camera came back relatively quickly, he has never played the trumpet, his other passion, again. “Ansel will play it a little bit now, but I think he does it just for me,” says Mr Arthur Elgort.
Today, his speech is almost fully recovered, and he continues to shoot for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar – as well as this shoot for MR PORTER. “He’s not shooting every September issue for Vogue anymore, which I know bums him out,” confides Mr Ansel Elgort. “But it’s like, hey Dad, you know from 1970 to 2010 [when he had his stroke], you were the guy. How many other artists stay at the top of their profession for 40 years? That’s unheard of.”
All three Elgorts are gentle and well mannered; there’s no posturing or the kind of bravado you might expect from a gilded Manhattan family. And by all accounts, Mr Elgort Snr has never been strict. “They weren’t the sort of parents who would say, ‘You can’t do that because it’s not safe,’” says Mr Warren Elgort. “They would say, ‘OK, no problem, just wear a life jacket.’” His rebellion took the form of interning at a hedge fund after graduating from college. “I liked the idea of making a lot of money,” he admits. “Then I realised I was better at storytelling than I was at economics.”
“We were around all the time,” Mr Arthur Elgort says. “If we went out, it was usually to take them to the theatre or the Philharmonic. And as a reward for sitting through the classical music, we’d take them to eat Peking duck afterwards.” A tradition they keep to this day. As the Elgort trio ready themselves to head out to Chinatown for, you guessed it, dinner at the Peking Duck House, Mr Arthur Elgort turns and says: “I’m still waiting for Ansel to pay for dinner. If I take him out, he’ll still go to the bathroom just as the cheque arrives.”
In support of Father And Son Day on Sunday 19 June, a charity initiative in alignment with the Royal Mardsen and dedicated to inspiring men and raising funds and awareness towards tackling male cancer, shop our curated selection of blue shirts, with proceeds going directly to the cause. Additionally show your support on Father And Son Day by posting a photograph to Instagram of yourself with your father, son, or an inspiring male mentor or friend and include the hashtag #FatherAndSonDay. If based in the UK, you can donate £5 to show your support by texting MARSDEN to 70800. Check @MRPORTERLIVE on Father And Son Day to see our own post.