Blackglama photo exhibit features fur coats and the stars who wore them

Shirley MacLaine, photograph by Bill King (cropped), From the Collection of Peter Rogers (Ogden Museum of Southern Art)

By Doug MacCash, NOLA.com | The Times-Picayune

The Ogden Museum of Southern Art exhibition “What Becomes a Legend Most? The Blackglama Photographs from the Collection of Peter Rogers” will seem alluring to some and alienating to others. The subject is the lustrous jet-black fur of minks and the A-list celebrities from Bette Davis to Liza Minnelli to Ray Charles who wore it.

Back in 1968, mink ranchers from the Great Lakes Mink Association (GLMA) sought out a New York advertising firm to help pump up the prices of their pelts. They hit pay dirt when they hired the Jane Trahey firm.

The trouble with photographing black fur for magazine ads, Trahey and company realized, is that the fur sort of disappears. As you gaze at the 60 images that line the Ogden walls, you’ll notice that the furs often become Manet-esque featureless black shapes. So, forget the fur. Concentrate on who’s wrapped in it.

Photograph of Luciano Pavarotti by Bill King, from the Peter Rogers collection.Ogden Museum of Southern Art

Peter Rogers, the advertising firm’s 34-year-old art director at the time, recalls that the first five subjects were mega-celebrities Bette Davis, Lauren Bacall, Judy Garland, Barbra Streisand and Melina Mercouri. These were stars of such universal appeal that they needed no introduction. So the ads didn’t introduce them. Instead the ads were dominated by the catch phrase “What Becomes a Legend Most?”. The identities of the stars were emphatically self-evident.

It probably didn’t hurt the fledgling campaign that the photographs were taken by fashion legends Richard Avedon and Bill King.

In a telephone conversation Monday (May 20), Rogers, who was born in Hattiesburg, Miss., and now lives in the French Quarter, explained that it didn’t matter if the luxurious black mink coats were rather illegible in the photos, because the campaign wasn’t meant to promote individual designs. It was meant to create an across-the-board demand for the black mink itself, thereby pushing up the prices at the fur auctions and making the Great Lakes Mink Association happy. The stars each got a custom coat in the bargain.

“Glamour was basically the concept,” Rogers said.

The title of the campaign blended the description of the fur with the GLMA acronym. It was genius. According to Rogers, there was a time when nine out of 10 mink coats sold bore the Blackglama label.

Rogers said that the biggest names in entertainment were eager to see themselves in a Blackglama ad. He attended practically every shoot and became buddies with some of the stars. In 1974, he bought out the ad agency and became boss. Needless to say, he has the best stories.

For some reason, he said, Shirley MacLaine wanted to wear majorette boots with her black fur. Rogers argued that the boots disguised her gorgeous legs. So they tried the shots boots on and boots off. In the end, even MacLaine agreed that Rogers was right.

Carol Burnett spent the first part of the shoot imitating the smoldering poses of the glamour girls who had come before her in the ad campaign. In the end, she leaped jester-like across the picture frame.

Rogers said that when he and Joan Crawford went to eat at “21,” she entered the restaurant dragging the black fur on the ground behind her to raise eyebrows.

Julie Andrews did the Blackglama shoot in her androgynous Victor Victoria personae. The young Liza Minnelli scandalously smoked a cigarette in her shot. Rudolf Nureyev behaved as if he was the very best ballet dancer in the whole wide world … which, of course, he was.

Photograph of Ann Margaret by Bill King from the Peter Rogers collection.Ogden Museum of Southern Art

The original Blackglama campaign came to a close in 1994, but it was renewed under new management in the 2000s at the demand of furriers, according to Rogers. If you Google Blackglama, you can find several seductive shots of a mink-clad Janet Jackson. Rogers moved to New Orleans four years ago. He said that since he grew up in Hattiesburg, he always looked on New Orleans as the big city and always knew he’d live here some day.

Times have changed, of course. Part of the Ogden audience will look on fur fashions as more stigma than style. Rogers, 79, fears that the era of true entertainment glamour may have evaporated, but the popularity of the product persists. Even in New Orleans, where winter isn’t especially wintery, he said he still spots plenty of fur.

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