Unseen Pictures of Female Icons: An Exclusive Excerpt of “Women Was My Beat” by Susan Wood

WOMEN: Portraits 1960-2000 by Susan Wood: Diane von Furstenberg
Diane Von Furstenberg, Fashion Designer, New York, New York, 1979. WOMEN: Portraits 1960-2000 by Susan Wood. All images by Susan Wood.

Susan Wood’s photographs were made during years of great social change, and her own career followed a similar trajectory. A born and bred New Yorker, Wood was involved with the original “Mad Men” of Madison Avenue and later won a Clio, the most sought-after award in advertising.

In 1954 her photographs appeared in the premier issue of Sports Illustrated. Mademoiselle chose her as one of their “Ten Young Women of the Year” in 1961. Throughout the 1960s, ‘70s and ‘80s, Wood’s work could be seen in Vogue, Life, People and New York magazines. She was a regular contributor to Look magazine, most notably for a 1969 cover story on John Lennon and Yoko Ono.

Involved in the fight for women’s rights and equality, Wood was a founding member of the Women’s Forum, and counted as friends many of the vanguard of the feminist movement including Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem.

WOMEN: Portraits 1960-2000 by Susan Wood: Barbara Chase Riboud
Barbara Chase-Riboud, Author and Artist, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1979. Photo by Susan Wood.
WOMEN: Portraits 1960-2000 by Susan Wood: Monica Vitti
Monica Vitti, Actor, Shepperton, England, 1965. Photo by Susan Wood.

Women: Portraits 1960–2000 comes about as a birthday gift, a valentine to myself, and to the women I photographed,” Wood states. The photographs give a fresh look at some of the most prominent and influential women in the latter part of the 20th century. Long-unseen pictures of female icons including Helen Gurley Brown, Julia Child, Nora Ephron, Diane von Furstenberg, Jane Fonda, Betsey Johnson, Jayne Mansfield, Yoko Ono, Susan Sontag, Gloria Steinem, Martha Stewart, Cheryl Tiegs, Alice Waters, Gloria Vanderbilt, and many others are featured.

A lively essay by Wood, entitled “Women Was My Beat” introduces the book. Read an exclusive excerpt below.

From “Women Was My Beat” by Susan Wood:

Although I was getting work from such fashion magazines as Vogue, Glamour, Mademoiselle, and McCall’s, and did human interest and working women stories for Mademoiselle, Glamour, Ladies’ Home Journal, and other women’s service magazines, my goal was to do picture stories involving people, places, and events. This was being done almost exclusively at Look and Life. I kept bringing around new portfolios, had no luck with Life (which was run like a boys’ fraternity house), but I was pulled into Look by a woman editor, Betty Leavitt. She was the picture editor who dealt with freelance photographers, and when I came to her with my portfolio and story suggestions, she came through with assignments. Look was not a self-satisfied Old Boys‘ culture. Gardner Cowles, Jr., owned it, and he was supportive of women’s creativity. Evidence is in the graphically advanced magazine, Flair, he created for his very talented and creative wife, Fleur Cowles. The top editorial position at Look was held by Dan D. Mich, a sympathetic, thoughtfully free-spirited man who had put a woman—Patricia Carbine—into a high executive position as managing editor. Patricia, Betty, and I interacted well, and they assigned me to some wonderful stories.

 
“My first photographs of Yoko were in a hospital, John staying with her while she rested quietly as she was trying to stave off a miscarriage, or was recovering from one.”
 

I became a regular contributor to Look, my most notable work being a 1969 cover story on John Lennon and Yoko Ono at their home in England. Betty Rollin, a good friend, and a writer with a dry wit and a sharp tongue who was a friend of Yoko’s at Sarah Lawrence, made the connection, and the art director at Look whom I called to suggest I be the photographer accepted my offer. My first photographs of Yoko were in a hospital, John staying with her while she rested quietly as she was trying to stave off a miscarriage, or was recovering from one. The rest of our story took place soon after, while Yoko was taking it easy at home, with John.

For me, they were a couple in love doing ordinary things. I did some photographs of them shopping and then arranged to come to their house in the country the next day and see what could be done to take varied and interesting pictures that would make the editors at Look want to give them lots of space. As I was living in London at the time, I could meet them for an event when it was actually happening.

 
“Like most of my photo sessions, making the story relied upon the joint effort and contributions of the subjects as well as my ability to draw out the creative spirit in making the shoot lively.”
 

At their house, they got creative, getting into the bathtub together, while the bedroom seemed natural for a bed scene, “Why don’t we do a picture of you in bed?” I asked. So I was the first to photograph them in a bed and they went on to do a bed-in for peace and so on. They had fun with the idea and began to enjoy making pictures. I wanted to give a sense of them as a loving couple. I met Yoko and John a few more times and, with their cooperation, creativity, and John’s impish sense of humor and body language, we made an interesting cover story for Look. Like most of my photo sessions, making the story relied upon the joint effort and contributions of the subjects as well as my ability to draw out the creative spirit in making the shoot lively.

[…]

 

WOMEN: Portraits 1960-2000 by Susan Wood: Martha Steward and Jayne Mansfield
Left: Martha Stewart, Entrepreneur and Author, Westport, Connecticut, 1976
Right: Jayne Mansfield, Actor, New York, New York, 1955. Photos by Susan Wood.

It turned out that Women had become my “beat.” Beat as in a police officer on his or her beat. Beat as in a drumbeat, because this thread of subject matter—women—had grown from a pulse beat into a resounding and insistent drumbeat for women’s rights to opportunity and achievement. It is also my beat, as in heartbeat, as I am heartened by how far we have come. It wasn’t something I planned. I saw my photography as a mix of art form and journalism, and women one of its many subjects. But in going through my archives, I came to discover that women were my main subject matter for more than 60 years. These were the noteworthy women of the Sixties and into the first 15 years of the 21st century: Achievers, trailblazers, glass-ceiling breakers, femme fatales, or individuals whom I chose to photograph or was asked to do so by the editors of magazines, the companies who hired me, or the friends who chose me to take their portraits for their book jackets or for other personal reasons. Was I a feminist? At the time, I thought of myself simply as a working woman pursuing a career. I knew many feminist leaders, and I was friends with Betty Friedan and Gloria Steinem. While I was uneasy with the label of feminist, I eventually accepted it with pride.

 
“For the first 10 years of my career, despite having the big names of feminism as friends, I never thought that being a woman, and getting assignments to photograph women, had anything to do with being a woman photographer.”
 

Betty could be abrasive, pugnacious, imperious, and grumpy. She might scream and seem to consider decorum bourgeois. But she was never like that with me. Well, maybe once, but that was when I disputed a medical fact about women and she interpreted it as making women look weaker than men—and she would have none of that.

Right or wrong, I backed off. I didn’t want this minor detail damaging our friendship—a friendship that was of the old-fashioned girlfriend sort. We gossiped, talked about men and love, drank together, and laughed at the absurdities of life. We liked going to parties, especially A-list ones. Sometimes we barely touched down. Betty had a slight vision problem so I drove. She loved my second husband, Joe Haggerty, and came to keep him company in his final days, and spoke at his funeral. Her opening line was, “I loved Joe.”

For the first 10 years of my career, despite having the big names of feminism as friends, I never thought that being a woman, and getting assignments to photograph women, had anything to do with being a woman photographer. But it did, because men dominated hard news. And though men controlled most editorial jobs, the few women editors among them were as macho as the guys. Nevertheless, the handful in “soft” news, and the good art directors, men or women, would give a talented woman a break, an assignment here and there. Working women, subjects associated with women, and home life such as food, fashion, children, marriage, family, and home furnishings, were “soft news” for ‘the women’s page’ of newspapers and women’s service magazines.

[…]

 

“Women: Portraits 1960–2000” is a revelation to me, a defining moment, a reality view on who I am. My era. What we went through, what was fought for, or what was gained by simply doing what we believed was right, without regard for permission or approval.

 

WOMEN: Portraits 1960-2000 by Susan Wood Book Cover

“Women: Portraits 1960–2000” can be ordered through Pointed Leaf Press.