The Iconic Career of 1960s Fashion Photographer Alma McGoldrick
This photographer lives a life of interesting contradictions.
The idyllic image of a woman floating in a pool of flowers exudes a languid tropical dreaminess. Some parts of getting that 1970s photo were so simple, McGoldrick recalls. The hibiscus, plumeria and bougainvillea blossoms were plucked from a yard in Kāhala. The model, so lovely, as the floating flowers gently cover just enough of her to hint that she is tastefully topless. But the back story is even more interesting. Turns out the model couldn’t swim and spent much of the shoot in near panic. “She was hanging on for dear life,” says McGoldrick. The wind kept blowing the flowers across the pool, threatening to expose more of her breasts than would fly in HONOLULU Magazine at the time. Then, the problems fell away and the image came together in a shot that’s still memorable.
Originally from London, McGoldrick has spent most of her adult life in Hawai‘i, first visiting in 1957, then moving here to stay in 1964. She ran her own photo business for decades with the help of an agent in the United Kingdom, who helped match her images with clients in 40 countries across the globe. She got started in photography in England in the 1950s, at a time when there were few women shooters. She worked for the Women’s Sunday Mirror with a circulation of 1.25 million, started by the Daily Mirror group, in 1955. And the sparky feminist who lined up her own models, styled her own shoots and traveled wherever the assignments took her also spent years shooting pinup photos for newspapers.
When she first started taking pictures in Europe, her assignments included shooting the wedding of a sheik (“I thought he was going to put me in his harem”), artist Salvador Dalí, a German nudist colony (“Of course, we all had to be nude,” although she tried to disguise her twin-lens Rolleiflex), the wedding of a 15-year-old princess in Venice (“I had to rent a gondola”) and a kissing festival in Cologne. “I got sent on all of the interesting jobs,” she recalls with a grin.
Alma Mcgoldrick. Photo: Elyse Butler Mallams
Look to Hawai‘i’s photo legacy of the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s and you’ll find McGoldrick’s images a dominant force. Her first cover for our magazine ran in the 1960s when this publication was still called Paradise of the Pacific. And McGoldrick hit her stride with the magazine, shooting many covers and fashion features with a mix of fashion, scenery and stunning women.
Fashion shoots these days often involve a crew of people: photographer, assistant, art director, makeup and hair stylists, even designers. In McGoldrick’s heyday, she rarely worked with more than one person at a time. “I had no stylist. The models did their own makeup.” She arranged for and picked up clothing from the designers, scouted and hiked to the locations with just the model, then developed and delivered the images. “I just wanted to have me and a camera.”
She’s hung onto some scrapbooks and samples, but many of the images remain with her agent and the people who published them, and she lost track along the way. While some of the shots feel evocative of an earlier time, others retain their edge. Some have never been published before.
Photo: Alma McGoldrick
McGoldrick shot commercially into the ’90s and still dabbles in photography with a photo club, but it’s now one of her many interests. Like many photographers, she prefers being behind the lens. “I’d rather go out snorkeling,” she replies, when the photographer assigned to shoot her portrait looks around for a good backdrop; she’s quick to volunteer to stand in the foliage fronting her house for the shot.
For McGoldrick, photography provided interesting work that helped pay the bills. But even at the height of her fame, she admits, there was a gnawing fear. “I was so petrified,” she says, “because you’re only as good as your last photo.” And she remains self-deprecating about her work: “I mostly had a formula—backlit with a reflector.”
While McGoldrick, 87, still speaks with the British accent of her hometown, she’s fully immersed in the Islands. She’s been an avid hiker for years, although, these days, she’s doing more snorkeling. She’s candid, busy and vitally interested in current events. “I’m an environmentalist and very concerned about global warming,” she says.
She lives in an airy Kailua home that reflects her globetrotting adventures (Nepal, Italy, Ireland, Austria and more) and her eclectic taste in art. “I love masks,” she says. But she’s also keeping up with the lives of her now far-flung family: two children, three grandchildren and two great-grandchildren living across the ocean.
One of her two daughters learned macramé in the 1970s and got her mother interested in jewelry making. To fill the gaps between photo shoots, McGoldrick combined her love of hiking in Hawai‘i forests with her eye for beauty and began to make jewelry, not from macrame, but out of fungus she found on her hikes. She’s still making the “tree shell” jewelry and selling it statewide. And she’s busy. “I love theater, I love dance, I love art,” she says, but not sports. “I’d rather do something than watch it.”
Through decades of shooting people and the Islands, McGoldrick chronicled the changing times.
This cover features a 19-year-old flight attendant named Nellwyne Lum. McGoldrick: “That was a bit daring for HONOLULU, a bit boob-y.”
This couple’s matching Tori Richard outfits, a bright blazer and a bikini, landed them on the cover and McGoldrick profiled in the same issue.
McGoldrick’s cover captures a dewy green scene, but the issue also included a piece on an emerging counterculture.
McGoldrick captured this model striking a pose on an O R & L train in what was described as a spring coat from Andrade’s.
This “bonnet of flowers” was the idea of model Danielle Poe; she helped fashion it from backyard blossoms. McGoldrick likes the simplicity of the creation more than later interpretations.
This issue noted that Hawai‘i taxes climbed to the second-highest in the nation, but used a fashion cover story to highlight ready-to-use pattern books for women ready to sew their own.