Born in Ohio in 1912, John Rawlings attended the local Wesleyan University, and upon graduation in the early 1930s he relocated to New York, where he became a freelance store window dresser. After buying a Leica to photograph his work and show it to potential clients, Rawlings discovered that he enjoyed taking pictures and eventually started to photograph some of the aristocratic clients themselves, alone or with their dogs. A few of those shots found their way to the desk of Nast, who decided to offer Rawlings a job at the Vogue studios as prop builder, studio hand, and apprentice to the legendary masters Beaton and Horst. The young Midwestener was so dedicated and worked with such unbridled enthusiasm that four months later he not only was promoted to first assistant to the masters but also got his first photo published in the September 15 issue of Vogue. Impressed by his precocious talent and visual style, Nast and Chase rewarded him in 1937 with a job at the British Vogue studio in London, where he would train and work until the early 1940s.
Although his early work for British Vogue showed the strong influence of Hoyningen-Huene and Horst, Rawlings would slowly depart from their style. “Rawlings was certaily th first major Conde Nast photographer to demonstrate a truly American eye… John Rawlings’ photography has a practical, no nonsense feeling…he focused his lens on the vibrant world surrounding him,” writes Charles Dare Scheips Jr., former director of the Conde Nasr Archives, in his introduction to Kohle Yohannan’s book John Rawlings: 30 Years in Vogue. “Rawlings brought a realistic visual style, presenting fashion as a force rather than a decoration.”
During his trainin in England, Rawlings had the opportunity to explore new photographic and lighting techniques without censorship from his masters. He went back to daylight, taking more descriptive and informative shots, incorporating the environment in the shoot, starting to experiment with mirrors, and combining natural and artificial lighting. “Enjoying an amount of autonomy he would never have been granted had he remained an assistant in New York, Rawlings produced such impressive work during his first months in London that, in a break from standing tradition, many of his British editorial pages found their way (with increasing regularity) in the international circulation of both French and American Vogue“, writes Yohannan. Rawling’s London trainin proved to be excellent preparation when he was called back to New York, which in the early 1940s was becoming the center of world culture. His return to Manhattan coincided with a cultural shift in which commercial photography was quickly catching up with art. Rawlings seized the moment to break with the artificial status-based formula of fashion photography inspired by Horst and to achieve a fresher, more American and lifestyle-driven look. ” Once back on native soil as the American rising star,” says Yohannan, “Rawlings began almost instinctively to realign himself with the markedly less-labored glamour of the American ideal of beauty, what Christian Dior had offhandedly termed ‘Le Look sportif’.”
The personal and independent path that Rawlings had created for himself led him to clash with the photographers of the time, who he said underestimated sunlight, did not crop enough, and always got themselves in the picture. Above all he criticized the ones who took themselves too seriously; without naming names, Cecil Beaton was surely on the list because, among his other eccentricities, he worked in the studio in his beret and cape, to proclaim his artistic and aristocratic standing. Like many of his colleagues, Rawlings had a list of favorite models. In the late 1930s and the early 1940s these included Dana Jenney, Helen Bennett, and Betty McLauchlen. Meg Mundy, whom he discovered by chance in a waiting room at the CBS studios, proved to be an all-time favorite, and he helped her greatly when she jumped from singer-model to Broadway actress.
A few months later Rawlings would start a new creative stage at Vogue when he became the first photographer to systematically associate fashion with Hollywood celebrities.