Every day, at around one o’clock, behind Swifty’s unassuming exterior on Lexington Avenue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, a certain cast of characters sails through the restaurant door. There, on the left, sits philanthropist and International Best-Dressed List alumna Bunny Mellon; across the room, art collector and museum-board fixture Beth Rudin DeWoody holds court at a table with five other women.
Yet, on this day, someone else draws the spotlight: a petite blonde tucked away at a corner table for two. She is dressed simply, almost starkly, in a plain, white silk shirt and tailored black trousers. Her fingers and throat are bare; she wears little makeup. It’s a breezy look—very Katharine Hepburn. And one by one, the ladies around the room get up and come over to greet Mary Hilliard, whose crab cakes lay untouched for quite some time; every two minutes, it seems, she must lay down her fork and knife to speak to another well-wisher.
Hilliard is not a socialite; nor is she a philanthropist or an art collector. She might have been once, but she left all that behind long ago. Once a homemaker and wife of a banker, she embarked more than 30 years ago on a photography career (it was an act of “invention, not a reinvention,” she says) and, since then, has become one of New York City’s most successful social photographers. Name a dozen of the city’s most glamorous fêtes in the last three decades and Hilliard’s likely shot it, capturing everyone who is anyone, from the east side of Manhattan to the East End of Long Island. In many ways, she’s helped tell the story of New York.
“You might get the others to take your picture,” says Aileen Mehle, the sharp-witted grande dame of society columnists, better known by her alias, Suzy, “but Mary’s the one who counts.”
Hilliard could likely give Mehle a run for her money when it comes to insider knowledge of the world they both document. Inquire around town about Mary Hilliard and you’ll quickly find that she’s regarded by her subjects as one of their own. Many say this gives her a distinct advantage in her work, especially when it comes to capturing behind-the-scenes moments.
“She’s the only photographer who is invited where there are no photographers allowed, and has been for years,” says jewelry designer Kenneth Jay Lane, a longtime member of the society circuit. “She’s a lady.”
As Hilliard describes it, “I’m trying to get a nice picture of a moment in time—that’s all I ask for. I look for what’s funny, too. But I don’t take grotesque pictures.”
“She’s a kind photographer, and one can tell what kind of person a photographer is through his or her work,” comments fine-art photographer Claiborne Swanson Frank. “Her subjects feel safe. They are captured in a gentle way. This is what I feel is so powerful about Mary’s work: the feeling of trust and safety.”
Trustworthiness and gentleness: These are not words one often associates with New York society, whose tearoom barbarism has been painstakingly chronicled by Edith Wharton, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Tom Wolfe, among countless other social observers. Yet in her circles, Hilliard is said to embody both. The bon ton likes what it sees in the mirror she holds up—and this has helped make her one of the most effective photographers of her ilk.
For someone so universally adored, Hilliard manages to be something of a chameleon; she also has a now-rare talent to make herself seem invisible when she’s on a job. “Mary stays in the background, and she’s never in your face,” says Lane. “It has something to do with very good manners. She doesn’t impose herself.” As with Swifty’s restaurant, if you didn’t know about Mary, you might overlook her altogether amid the bustle of a gala or cocktail party.
Many observers consider Hilliard to be the last of a dying breed of inconspicuous old-guard photographers documenting the scene today. Her most prominent colleagues, by comparison, have moved from the wings to center stage in recent years, creating mini-empires with vast staffs and assuming an air of celebrity in their own right. Omnipresent event photographer Patrick McMullan recently appeared as himself on the CW’s television series Gossip Girl and has a staff of 25 full- and part-time photographers working for him in New York, Los Angeles, Miami and San Francisco. McMullan says his agency documents around 50 events in any given week and more than 100 weekly events during peak times. He has published six books of his work, with titles such as Glamour Girls, In Tents and Kiss Kiss (which chronicles “the famous, the infamous, the beautiful, the talented and everyone in between”). Social photographer Billy Farrell—once a McMullan protégé—staged a much-publicized exodus from his mentor’s agency in 2010, taking three photographers along with him. The resulting Billy Farrell Agency, or BFA, now boasts ten regular photographers; the agency will hire an additional 15 to 20 during New York Fashion Week.
Then there’s Bill Cunningham—a fashion and social photographer for The New York Times and elder statesman of the trade—who suddenly had celebrity imposed upon him with the release of a 2010 documentary about his life and work. Bill Cunningham New York instantly became a critical darling and cult classic, and Cunningham—reportedly a reluctant subject in the first place—has since become as famous as many of his subjects. Earlier this year, Carnegie Hall threw a gala in his honor and awarded him the Carnegie Hall Medal of Excellence. His Facebook fan page has more than 12,800 followers. “He said he didn’t even see the film,” says Hilliard, who calls Cunningham—a longtime friend of hers—a “courtly fellow with good manners.” She adds that he “regretted it because it made him less anonymous.”
There’s a certain irony, then, that Hilliard—considered more of a social insider than any of her counterparts—now stands largely alone as a removed observer rather than a participant: There is no reality TV agent on her speed dial; no fleet of junior photographers attends her; no agency bears her name. She doesn’t even have an assistant. Asked to comment on the high visibility and entrepreneurial zeal of her competitors, Hilliard says, “I’ve known Patrick forever, and he’s made his way better than me in a lot of ways. He used to be just a downtown photographer, and I was an uptown photographer. He wanted to go into business together once, but the way I’ve done it is the only way that suits me.”
It seems to suit everyone else as well. The idea of a high-octane Mary Hilliard agency would probably seem preposterous to those who have known her for years. They would likely tell you that Hilliard’s essence evokes a faded yet grand country club, not Bret Easton Ellis’s Glamorama. She’s a gin and tonic, not a caipirinha. She even still goes by her endearing childhood nickname: Cookie.
One does wonder, though, how someone so comparatively reserved—no matter how admired or liked she may be—can endure in a realm that lately seems to require such lavish displays of self-branding and promotion.
Such reticence has apparently been a lifelong habit for Hilliard. “From a tender age, I always wished to be a fly on the wall, to watch but not participate,” she says. “And I evolved a career that’s an extension of that.” Her reserve has created an unintentional but probably inevitable allure: After all, who can resist the puzzle of a person who relentlessly documents her own world and yet will rarely turn the camera back on herself? Hilliard insists that she is, at heart, a shy person and, furthermore, that her private demeanor stems from observing a certain code of decorum.
“My family is certainly not royalty and didn’t come over on the Mayflower, but they knew how to behave and how to dress and what was nice in life,” she says, addressing the long-standing, popular impression that she hails from blue-blood stock. “I guess you could say that we were gentile but poor. But I had a wonderful childhood and was comfortable wherever we went.”
Comfortable everywhere—except in front of the camera. An only child growing up in Coconut Grove, Florida, Hilliard was mercilessly photographed by her parents (“My mother had a Stereo-Realist camera; in almost every shot, she cut off my feet!”). Her comfort level behind the camera, however, was a different story: She was given a Kodak Brownie Hawkeye camera as a child, which she used to shoot slumber parties and other typical little-girl things. Her serious interest in photography didn’t begin until she was married with two teenage sons and living in New York City. Appalled by what she calls “terrible Christmas-card pictures of friends’ families” in the 1970s, she signed up for local photography lessons. Her peers and teachers quickly realized that she had a talent, and a course at the Center of the Eye Photography School in Aspen soon followed.
Her big break came in the late 1970s when a woman she met in Aspen asked if she would shoot a Giorgio Sant’Angelo couture show. Her photographs turned out well; she was hired again, and her mentor, Sally Kirkland, a fashion editor at Vogue and the only fashion editor at Life, introduced her to designers Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Calvin Klein. Around that time, Avenue Magazine was beginning to cover parties, and Hilliard was asked to come on board as a freelance photographer. “I thought, Who could be a better ambassador than Mary? She’s always been every bit as elegant and graceful as any of the fancy people she was photographing,” says Michael Shnayerson, Avenue’s former editor. One professional triumph led to another: She began working with The New York Times Magazine and then Vogue, for which she contributed from 1996 to 2009. At times, no one was more astonished by her success than Hilliard. Asked to reflect on her ascent, she responds with characteristic understatement: “I’m just lucky, I guess.”
She might spend many of her evenings at parties all over the city, but each night Hilliard returns to a quiet, homey apartment on the Upper East Side. She and her longtime companion, arts and television critic Leonard Harris (her marriage dissolved as her career took off), were together for more than 30 years until his death last year; she also has homes in New York’s Hudson Valley and West Palm Beach. The couple entertained frequently, and their annual Christmas fêtes—a tradition Hilliard carries on—in her New York apartment are beloved. “It has always been a joyous party,” recalls Shnayerson. “All sorts of writers and photographers and artists attend.”
The apartment is filled with mementos of the couple’s happy life together: worn, dark-purple banquettes, scores of books and art given to the couple by their many artist friends. In the back of the apartment is a small, undistinguished-looking room filled with file cabinets; a ceiling lamp bathes the space in an unforgiving light. This is Hilliard’s makeshift office and archive.
She opens one of the drawers and pulls out a pile of magazine clippings, contact sheets and photographs. On top sits a close-up of Kenneth Jay Lane with heiress and avant-garde fashion muse Daphne Guinness at an event in 2010. Hilliard peers down at Guinness’s image: “I just can’t imagine going through all that trouble to get dressed, but she’s got a great sense of humor and she’s intelligent.” Farther down in the pile: an image of socialite Anne Slater wearing her trademark blue-lens sunglasses and acting as her building’s gatekeeper during a doorman strike; a photo of idiosyncratic former Vogue editor Diana Vreeland at a black-tie event, looking hilariously appalled at something happening off-camera; a picture of socialite Nan Kempner posing in perfect makeup by a pool while Lane rather cheekily gropes her behind. There is also a formal shot of Princess Diana, taken at the Hotel Plaza Athénée in New York: “They had this big, puffy armchair for her, and when she sat in it, she sank way down. I told her, ‘Sit up straight!’ and she did.”
Tens of thousands of such images fill this little room—many of them never published—and Hilliard says that she is considering publishing a book of her work. In many ways, to hear her describe it, the book would document a quickly disappearing world. “The parties aren’t as much fun anymore,” she says, recalling the days when socialites such as Blaine Trump and Pat Buckley hosted massive benefits. “There was something nice about when it felt like someone’s private party for charity. Now it’s all corporate sponsors, and people only go to parties in borrowed clothes.”
Studying her photographs, she contemplates what makes a person glamorous. “You have to have a little pride and self-confidence,” she says. “You need to be well-groomed and have a sense of what’s appropriate. Oh, and a long neck helps.”
However, not all glamour belongs exclusively to the past in Hilliard’s eyes: She concedes that there are still a few stylish women on the scene today. “I think Mercedes Bass and Anne Bass look nice,” she says, referring to the respective former wives of business tycoon Sid Bass. “I think Carolina Herrera looks great. And Marina Rust: She’s elegant and has such a beautiful face.” Nor does she have any intention of hanging up her Canon anytime soon.
The bottom line, as she puts it: “I love going to parties. And I never get tired of carrying a camera.”