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Gösta Peterson, Barrier-Breaking Fashion Photographer, Dies at 94

The Times cover was widely regarded as the first by a major American fashion magazine with a racially mixed readership to feature a black model.

Ms. Sims had been a 19-year-old student at the Fashion Institute of Technology in Manhattan when she cold-called Mr. Peterson at his Upper East Side studio. That he immediately agreed to photograph her was typical of his contrarian approach to his work.

He often recruited models to pose in natural light and in prosaic settings, sometimes even precariously on bicycles or roller skates.

Slide Show

The Photographs of Gösta Peterson

CreditGosta Peterson, via Turn Gallery

A Swedish-born illustrator-turned-photographer, Mr. Peterson frequently juxtaposed high fashion with the low public profiles of the lesser-known models he selected himself. His method was often to incorporate multiple images in compositions that sought to capture not just outer garments but also his subjects’ inner individuality.

“Gus is very much an anti-fashion fashion photographer,” Jan Peterson, his son and manager, said in 2015.

Mr. Peterson photographed Twiggy in her first fashion shoot in the United States, the pictures appearing in The Times Magazine of April 16, 1967.

At the time, his wife, Patricia Peterson, was the magazine’s fashion editor, and she had met Twiggy — the elfin, doe-eyed, 17-year-old Lesley Hornby, whose prepubescent boy’s figure had inspired the sobriquet — as she arrived in New York as already a 5-foot-7 blond sensation in Europe.

“My mother basically went to the airport and said, ‘Let’s get her before anyone else,’” Ms. Peterson-Steer told New York magazine’s The Cut in 2015.

Twiggy rustled up a two-piece black wool sweater dress and an Adolfo hat, and in two hours Mr. Peterson completed the shoot for a spread headlined “Black Comeback.”


Twiggy in her first fashion shoot in the United States. The pictures appeared in The Times Magazine on April 16, 1967.

Gosta Peterson, via Turn Gallery

It was his only photo session with her.

His daughter told Women’s Wear Daily in 2015 that when people asked him, “Where are your other photos of Twiggy?” he would typically reply: “I just took that one.” She added that was “because once Twiggy became Twiggy, he wasn’t interested any more.”

Mr. Peterson was most known for his fashion spreads in Harper’s Bazaar, GQ, Mademoiselle, Town & Country, Esquire and Elle magazines (but not in Vogue, which demanded its own models). He also photographed jazz musicians, like Duke Ellington, and artists, like Salvador Dalí.

While lesser known than Richard Avedon and Irving Penn, Mr. Peterson was, “one of the most rebellious and ferociously creative fashion photographers of his generation,” Lizzie Crocker wrote in The Daily Beast in 2014.

“The women Peterson photographed were offbeat, eccentric, irreverent, and not conventionally pretty,” she wrote. “While most models flirted with the camera, Peterson forced his subjects to confront it.”

Gösta Reinhold Peterson was born on April 25, 1923, in Orebro, Sweden, west of Stockholm. His father, Ernst, owned a delicatessen. His mother was the former Elsa Ljungdahl.

He majored in illustration and graphic arts at what is now Beckmans College of Design in Stockholm, served in the military during World War II and got a job as an illustrator at the Gumelius advertising agency in that city. Invited to the United States by a relative, he arrived in New York from Philadelphia in 1948 inauspiciously.

Worried while waiting at a railroad station that he would forget the portfolio of drawings he had assembled for prospective employers, he sat on it. After he boarded the train, he realized he had left the portfolio on a bench. Luckily, a conductor spotted it and had it shipped to Mr. Peterson in New York.

In 1954, Mr. Peterson married the former Patricia Louis, who survives him, along with their two children.

Mr. Peterson was working as a department store illustrator for Lord & Taylor when he took up photography in earnest on the city’s streets with a Rolleiflex camera, a going-away gift from his colleagues at the Gumelius agency. He soon began accepting freelance assignments from magazines.

He was later hired by Henri Bendel, where his wife was vice president. The store soon switched from drawn illustrations to accompany its weekly advertisements in The Times to Mr. Peterson’s photographs.

His pictures of Ms. Sims were considered groundbreaking. Another black model, Donyale Luna, had appeared on the cover of Vogue in 1966, the year before The Fashions of The Times cover, but only in Vogue’s British edition. Ms. Luna was lighter-skinned, and most of her face in the Vogue photograph was covered by one of her hands. (Beverly Johnson was the first black model to appear on the cover of Vogue’s American edition, in 1974.) Ms. Sims died of cancer in 2009 at 61.

Mr. Peterson retired in 1986. Besides at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, his work has been exhibited at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It was the subject of a retrospective at the Turn Gallery in New York in 2015.

What distinguished him from many other fashion photographers, he once said, was his willingness to take chances.

“Most of the time I was fairly sure that a photo was going to turn out O.K.,” he told the Swedish-American publication Nordstjernan, “but I was never completely sure.”

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