NEW YORK -- To look at Steven Meisel is to see hair, the hair of rabbit blown softly against his own -- hare on hair, black and brooding over the sullen contours of his long and beautiful face. He might have been a model had he not become an illustrator, then a photographer, then a kind of mystical figure in sunglasses and trapper's hat. There is no one remotely like him in the world of imposed style.

For a long time, even before we knew him, we have been looking at his pictures -- of Madonna, naked except for an American flag; of delicate young men in Byronesque poses; of countless models in false eyelashes and cockeyed wigs, their bodies oiled and pulled with deliberate sexual tension. The focus of his liberated eye is unmistakable. His subjects are rarely as beautiful in the flesh as they are on the printed page, and even then they do not always possess a conventional kind of beauty. His models would never stand idly at a street corner munching on a baguette, nor would they ever be seen without makeup or sprinting happily across a rolled lawn. That is simply not his style, if running and skipping can be said to be a style at all.

What tends to discomfort people about Meisel's images is their unremitting frankness. To see Madonna strutting half-naked across a room or kissing another woman on the mouth is to know that Meisel has not only exposed the essence of her character, but certain of our fears and anxieties as well. It's as if he's saying, "Here it is. Now deal with it." The same instinct seems to apply to his portraits of gay men, hookers and models no longer in first bloom. And yet what he sees in their pale complexions and aging bodies is probably more realistic and natural than what passes today for the ideal: a 19-year-old blonde with blue eyes and a personal trainer.

"Not everyone has the same kind of life," says Meisel. "Not everyone has had the same experiences, and not everyone looks the same. I think people need to see different kinds of things. Or else there's no point to what I do."

There are certainly a lot of people who are wondering what he'll do next. This spring he signed an exclusive contract with Conde Nast, which means that he'll be shooting principally for American Vogue, Italian Vogue, Vanity Fair and Italian Glamour. He has commercial contracts to shoot ads for Calvin Klein, Barneys and Gap, among others. And, of course, there is his collaboration with Madonna. Warner Books has scheduled for publication in October a book of Meisel's portraits of Madonna taken over several months. It is not likely to be tame.

Less predictable is his relationship with American Vogue. When Meisel had a previous contract with Vogue he was seldom used, and the feeling seemed to be that it was because his images didn't fit into the mix determined by Anna Wintour, the magazine's editor in chief. In any case, Meisel was busily shooting for Franca Sozzani, the editor of Italian Vogue, doing what many people believe to be his most influential work. Still, there was no small amount of irony in the fact that one of America's best fashion photographers had no significant presence in America's leading fashion magazine.

The situation began to change, however, when it became clear that Harper's Bazaar, under the new stewardship of Elizabeth Tilberis, was going after some of the best in the business -- creative directors, stylists and, as it happened, a few of Vogue's photographers. For weeks Meisel's name ricocheted from one shiny sheet to the next, as though he were live ammunition in a ground war of dresses. Would he go with Bazaar? Or would Conde Nast snag him? Suddenly, Meisel seemed to be the prime catch.

There are a lot of photographers shooting fashion today -- Arthur Elgort, Peter Lindbergh, Helmut Newton, Herb Ritts, Richard Avedon, Ellen von Unwerth, Bruce Weber, Sheila Metzner, Patrick Demarchelier, Irving Penn, to mention the most obvious. But every generation has its dominant eye, just as Penn was in the '50s, Avedon the '60s, Newton the '70s and Weber the '80s. What all those photographers have in common is an ability to convey culture through fashion -- the culture of their time. No one could dispute that Newton captured the hedonistic delights of the '70s, and that Weber documented the power of the '80s with a more natural eye for luxury and extreme good looks.

For Meisel, who began taking pictures more than a decade ago, the '90s may be simply the decade of extremes.

Plucking and Tweaking Considering the company his parents kept, Meisel had the most unlikely beginnings for a career behind the camera. "It was kind of show-bizzy," he says of a childhood spent in an apartment on Riverside Drive in Manhattan, with a mother who used to sing with Sammy Kaye and a father who was in the record business. Together, they attracted a big crowd -- Tom Jones to the Beatles. "Strangely enough, I wasn't really interested in all that," he says. "I loved fashion. I loved everything about that kind of business."

He went to Parsons School of Design, illustrated clothes for Women's Wear Daily and then started taking pictures. What he liked about fashion then is what he likes about fashion now: fantasy, change and the nerve to transform oneself.

"Many of the good photographers don't care anything about fashion," says Sozzani. "They just like to make an image. But Steven really likes fashion. And he's the only photographer who has anything new to say about it."

"It sounds strange, but a knowledge of fashion is quite rare among photographers," says Wintour. "Steven knows his frocks."

Paul Cavaco worked with Meisel a lot before going to Bazaar as a stylist, and he says, "Steven has such a reference to fashion, its vocabulary and history, that he can tell you exactly where something came from. And I think because of that, he can turn it around and use it in a modern way. Like false eyelashes. But after he had done it and everybody else was doing it, he said, 'That's it. It's over.' And he moved on to something else."

Indeed, Meisel's pictures proposed artifice long before it became fashionable to show 20-year-old models with bouffant hairdos and wide, lipsticked mouths lounging by a pool in Palm Beach. "Fashion before Steven was very natural," says Anna Sui, who was a stylist before becoming a designer. It was Meisel, along with Cavaco, who proposed that the models in Sui's last show shave off their eyebrows. And so they did, just as they had plucked and shaped their eyebrows for Meisel when he wanted that look. "You can never say no to Steven," says Kevyn Aucoin, the makeup artist who did much of the initial plucking.

His relations with models are as legendary as they are complex. He is most closely associated with Linda Evangelista, whose career -- and hair color -- he continues to transform. But he seems to love them all. The old and the new. He brought Peggy Moffitt, Rudi Gernreich's former model, out of retirement for a recent portfolio in Italian Vogue, and he shot Lisa Taylor, a '70s model, for Calvin Klein's spring campaign. "They're so sexy, sexy, sexy -- like Jeanne Moreau," says Meisel. "They're women. Who wants only young girls for another T-shirt-and-jeans story?"

Directly or indirectly, he has determined the shape of some of our ideas about contemporary fashion. His images of Evangelista and Naomi Campbell, bumping and grinding their way through Italian Vogue, gave an impression of sexual strength that anticipated the more liberated fashion that emerged at the end of the '80s, when it became clear that women could no longer be coerced into believing that sexy clothes implied promiscuity or immorality. "It's a new generation of women," suggests Sui. "They're dressing to please themselves. I think Steven's given them that direction."

In fact, his sittings are known for being meticulously directed. "I'm not saying that other photographers don't give, but Steven does everything," says Campbell. "He touches you, he grooms you, he talks to you and he tells you exactly what he wants. I can't be in front of a photographer who just says, 'Move.' "

If Campbell occasionally feels that Meisel's direction transports her to "another era," not everybody is as mesmerized by his recent renderings of old-fashioned glamour, least of all Bert Stern. In 1962, Stern photographed Marilyn Monroe for what was to become her last sitting. The gossamer images are so distinctive that when Meisel photographed Madonna in the manner of Monroe, it was obvious whose work he was imitating. Stern complained, of course, but in an era of art "appropriations" and music "sampling," Meisel's inspired use of his and other famous sittings (Horst P. Horst's study of corsets, for instance) has spawned its own imitations. "Listen," says Wintour, "fashion comes from the past. We're always looking for references. I think it's part of the reason that Steven is able to change his work. And I think it's so much a part of what Madonna is about. I mean, she's the queen of change."

It's also possible that some of these homages are not quite so studied as they appear, and that perhaps Meisel is more intent on imparting irony than imitation. "Even though his pictures often look serious, he's tweaking you a little bit," says Cavaco. "He's tweaking sex, and he's tweaking fashion."

"I read all these articles about Steven," says his friend Anna Sui, "and I don't recognize him. They make him sound so intimidating and cold. You would never know from reading any of these stories how funny he is."

No, you never would.

The Vortex He has taken off his sunglasses and he seems perfectly charming, there in the sunlight of his white studio. Not cold. Not intimidating. Not any of the things the fortyish Steven Meisel is supposed to be. He talks in a way that suggests he might, at any minute, tell a funny story or a bit of gossip, in a voice that, like most everything else about him, is in complete contrast to the way he looks. Gloamy and brooding.

"I guess it's because I dress in black," he says, smiling. "But who doesn't?"

There was a time, not so very long ago, when it seemed to Meisel that he was not getting the amount of work that he thought he should, especially from American Vogue. It was a period of frustration that even his friends feel reluctant to talk about. "He's very protective of himself," says Sui. "Always. Always."

But those days seem to have passed, and Meisel says that the volume of his work has quadrupled in the last two years. "I feel like I've just begun, and that it will all come."

Clearly, he would like to see American Vogue take more risks with photographs, and there is a similar feeling among many of his colleagues that the magazine could be more provocative and diverse in its visual perspective. But to compare it with Italian Vogue, with its rarefied audience, would be fairly pointless, suggests Wintour, "when you don't have to sit on the shelf in a supermarket, the way we do."

Still, the competitive recasting of Bazaar is bound to create a faster and more thrilling vortex for everyone, especially photographers who apprehend that not everyone has the same kind of life. Meisel at least has his ideas, and right now, in the honest light of his white studio, he is contemplating Lisa Taylor in his mind's eye. He's not sure he captured the lines and contours of her 40-year-old face as clearly as he could have, and maybe if he had her to shoot all over again ...

He thinks for a minute and smiles.

"I would shoot her rough," he says.