First Lady of Fashion Photography Set Design

First Lady of Fashion Photography Set Design

Mason Gross Alumna has set the scene for some of the most iconic images of the last quarter century – Caitlyn Jenner, Michelle Obama, ‘Brangelina’ and more

Caitlyn Jenner
Mary Meyers Howard selected the metallic background and simple stool set for Caitlyn Jenner's Vanity Fair cover shot by Annie Leibovitz.
Photo: Annie Leibovitz/Courtesy of Mary Meyers Howard

'I love fashion photography, so it follows that I love being a part of making up the environment for the photo. The best sets complement the fashion, have sort of a dialogue with the girl and what she is wearing and add a buzz to the image.'
 
– Mary Meyers Howard 

When the top fashion photographers need a backdrop to showcase their artistic vision, they call on Mary Meyers Howard.

If a fashion image is iconic, chances are good the Rutgers alumna had a hand in it, painstakingly building, selecting and arranging props, furniture and lighting to set just the right scene.

It’s Howard who selected the stool-only set that let a newly transitioned Caitlyn Jenner shine on her Vanity Fair cover shot. It was her deft eye for mid-century detail – right down to the peas and potatoes – that lent authenticity to W magazine’s 2005 “Domestic Bliss” spread featuring Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt. And it was Howard who was Annie Leibovitz’s right hand when she shot portraits of Queen Elizabeth and President Barack Obama with First Lady Michelle Obama.

“I love fashion photography, so it follows that I love being a part of making up the environment for the photo,” said Howard, who earned her MFA from Mason Gross School of the Arts in 1983.  “The best sets complement the fashion, have sort of a dialogue with the girl and what she is wearing and add a buzz to the image.”

An industry pioneer, Howard is hailed as fashion photography’s first set designer, a title Vogue bestowed upon her in the early ’90s to credit her for the art form she birthed out of the ether.

“I feel like I’m still painting, but in more of 3D way,” said the New Orleans native who lives in Red Hook, Brooklyn, with husband, 1974 Mason Gross graduate and painter, Mike Howard. “I’m running in and out of the set exchanging things, moving things around, using a different chair. I make changes based on how the objects are reacting to the light.”

Before Howard, and the dozens of set designers she spawned, photographers made use of whatever was on hand at a location or relied on fashion magazine assistants to fetch the occasional prop.

All that changed in the late ’80s when Howard was working as a freelance artist building props for window displays. Interior designer Robert Currie commissioned a 3-foot-tall paper mache Cinderella pumpkin from her. Through Currie, Howard was introduced to famed photographer Richard Avedon. A request for a beach set Avedon was shooting for a Versace ad followed.

“Then other photographers and magazine editors began asking for furniture and sets,” she said. “It slowly grew and then steadily built up over the years.”

Today Howard owns Mary Howard Studio, a set and production design agency representing the industry's leading production designers, set designers and prop stylists. The firm employs 100, produces about 650 shoots a year and operates from a massive compound in Gowanus, Brooklyn, that includes an 8,000-square-foot set, 5,000-square-foot prop house and 5,000-square-foot office.

Mary Meyers Howard
Vogue created the title of fashion photography set designer for Howard in the early '90s.
Photo: Courtesy Mary Meyers Howard
Howard personally handles about 100 shoots annually, mainly on design campaign that include Prada, Versace, Dolce & Gabbana and Louis Vuitton. Clients give her basic guidelines, but count on her to have all the right props and know how to use them to elevate their work.

“I like when the client or photographer has parameters on the look of the shoot. But even so, these can get dismissed when things can change on a dime,” she said.  “We are on a location and suddenly someone decides it needs to be a set or visa versa.  Sometimes an idea just doesn't work and you have to give up on it and quickly move on.”

Her approach calls upon the tools she gained in art school and post-graduate work constructing floats for Mardi Gras and Macy’s Thanksgiving Day parades. She still gushes about her experience at Mason Gross: Painting in her studio Monday through Friday and consuming all the art she could in Manhattan on the weekends.

Natalia Vodianova
Howard designed this set for Steven Meisel's shot of Natalia Vodianova, which appeared in Vogue USA in 2007.
Photo: Steven Meisel
“I’m thrilled I went to Mason Gross,” she said. “You were left to explore things on your own. It was such a luxurious time, and one I dream about to this day.”

She encourages upcoming BFAs and MFAs to revel in that process of making and viewing art, experimenting with technique and learning by trial and error instead of getting bogged down with specifics. After all, when Howard was a student, her job title – and any coursework to prepare her for it – didn’t exist. She credits her fine art immersion and living at the epicenter of the Fluxus movement with giving her the curiosity confidence to carve that new career path.

The vibe of Fluxus was so much in the air,” she said of the movement that arose in the ’60s and exalts the unpredictable, ordinary and fleeting moments of everyday life. “My paintings became live performances in New York. I created costumes and performances I called ‘flashes’ that focused on time, ceremony and ritual. It was 100 percent pure creativity. It translated well into what I do now.”