Snapping high society: Inside the world of photographer Mary Hilliard


I was always sort of aware of Mary Hilliard. I would see her name next to photographs of people with boldfaced names in Women’s Wear Daily and other publications that I would pore over as a student at Parsons School of Design and, later, as a young designer on Seventh Avenue.

At the few truly fancy New York events that I did manage to worm my way into, I would notice her quietly doing her job, either just inside the entrance, taking pictures of the arriving swells (never me) or gently weaving her way through the crowd until she discovered something worthy of her film and flash.

It wasn’t until more than a decade later that I really got to know Hilliard, when we worked together at a Palm Beach wedding that I helped plan. I was smitten, not only by her easygoing warmth, but by her talent.

Only later, when I inquired about using one of her photographs for the cover of a book I had written, did I realize that so many iconic images that I recognized over the years were hers.

She attended one of my book signings at the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach, a terrific organization whose mission is to preserve Palm Beach’s architectural and cultural heritage. The book was a success, in part due to the cover photo, and when she came over to hug me I said, “Someone needs to do a book on you, or at least a retrospective. You’ve photographed some of the most famous people and spectacular events in the world!”

“Oh, come on,” she answered. “No one would be interested in that.”

Thankfully, someone was. It was Hilliard who needed further convincing. Suffice it to say that after some significant nagging, she relented, so long as I would help sort through the photos and curate the exhibit.

Going through her photos was like going through yearbooks, but rather than high school, it was high society.

The end result: “Places & Faces: The Photography of Mary Hilliard” will open at the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach on Jan. 8.

“Fashion and philanthropy have long played a role in the social history of Palm Beach,” says Amanda Skier, executive director of the Preservation Foundation of Palm Beach. “Mary’s work beautifully documents the lives of those who are at the forefront of that culture.”

Though she is often compared to other iconic chroniclers of society such as Slim Aarons and Bill Cunningham, Hilliard will flatly dismiss any such association with her trademark mix of southern charm and genuine modesty. Of Cunningham, she says: “While we all were primarily sent to capture lifestyle and celebrity, Bill was a journalist first, photographer second, and brilliant at both.” He was also a dear friend of hers.

And Aarons? “Slim’s shots were carefully composed. I have always worked more spontaneously, except for maybe a wedding, where you do have to set things up.”

To call Hilliard a wedding photographer would be like calling Coco Chanel a dressmaker. Over a career spanning four decades, she has documented some of the most famous people and extraordinary events imaginable, from Malcolm Forbes’ 70th birthday extravaganza in Morocco to the celebrity circus that is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s annual Costume Institute Gala.

In between, she began working the mosh pit at runway shows as well as scores of lavish events that were born out of 1980s “Nouvelle Society” and continue to this day.

And while Hilliard maintains that she has never been more than the visual equivalent of a hired hack, her subjects would disagree. Indeed, whenever her name is mentioned, words like “discreet,” “trusted” and “flattering” get repeated over and over again.

Even those who typically avoided the camera rarely said no to her. “I don’t take grotesque pictures,” she said, in a rare profile written about her several years ago.

Rarer still has been access to her archive, which she keeps in the same modest Upper East Side apartment that has been her home for many years. In the 1970s, finding herself a divorced mother with two teenage sons, she matter-of-factly explains, “I needed to work — for me — and also to pay the rent.”

She knew that she had a knack for photography, so she bought a Nikkormat camera and took classes at the Camera Club of New York. Her first published photograph was one of her son’s school field trips to the Little Red Lighthouse under the George Washington Bridge. It is “Item #1” in a collection that now holds more than 100,000 images.

Hilliard’s breakout moment occurred when a friend asked her to shoot a Giorgio Sant’Angelo runway show. The results were so good that they led to subsequent bookings, furthered along by the support of Sally Kirkland, a fashion editor at Vogue and Life magazines.

Through Kirkland, Hilliard was introduced to New York’s fashion elite. Designers such as Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein welcomed Hilliard and her camera into their studios and, more importantly, their shows.

Over time, she became a regular, albeit rare female member of the photographers’ pool. But as a woman as lithe as any model, she used her knowledge of how a dress was constructed — how it moved on the body and how the body moved with it — to capture the fashion in a uniquely informed way. Her pictures were different, more intuitively dynamic yet delightfully relatable, and a career was born. But the next great leap was yet to come.

An editor at a new magazine named Avenue noticed Hilliard’s work and engaged her as a freelancer — not for runway shows, but for parties.

The very same women who were traditionally seated in the front rows of the fashion shows that Hilliard had photographed by day would reappear in their designer gowns by night. She knew them, they knew her, and most importantly, they trusted her. It was the ultimate symbiotic relationship, further compounded by Nouvelle Society’s appetite for publicity — as one socialite after another would scan the room looking for her, knowing that Hilliard’s photos would show them at their very best.

“A long neck helps,” she laughs. But even those who weren’t the least bit swanlike still appeared elegant, svelte and youthful — and the clothes looked terrific.

This combination of well-bred manners and an antenna for beauty and fashion established Hilliard as a New York society insider, and ultimately one of the most sought-after photographers on the scene.

Along with the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Costume Institute Gala, her recurring coverage of the New York Public Library’s Library Lions awards and the American Ballet Theatre’s Spring Gala appeared regularly in the pages of Vogue, Town & Country, Women’s Wear Daily, and the New York Times Magazine, along with Avenue and Quest, magazines in which her work continues to appear.

While New York City solidly remains her home, she enjoys “too-few visits” to her cozy cottage in West Palm Beach’s Sunshine Park, and she still accepts the occasional booking, but only for longtime clients and friends.

“I always wished to be a fly on the wall, to watch but not participate,” she says. This reluctance to be noticed, along with her patrician Coconut Grove upbringing, is what has defined Mary Hilliard and her body of work.

It is indeed the ultimate irony that the majority of her subjects are some of the most noticed people in the world.

Steven Stolman is a designer and the author of several books on entertaining, including “Confessions of a Serial Entertainer” and “The Serial Entertainer’s Passion for Parties.” He lives in Palm Beach, Milwaukee and New York.

This story is reprinted courtesy of Town & Country magazine. For more on Mary Hilliard, including a look at her most famous photos, visit www.townandcountrymag.com/society/a14437725/society-photographer-mary-hilliard/



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