When Photography Became Art
Richard Avedon (1923-2004) was the first photographer to be widely recognized as a true artist in the sense that painters and sculptors are. Works by other photographers have of course been exhibited in major art museums for decades, but only as an adjunct to the museums' serious collections.
Oddly, back in the early 1960s I discussed this with him, and he opined that photographers were artisans and not really to be considered in the same league as, say, Picasso. This belief began to change in 1962 when he mounted his first museum exhibition, at the Smithsonian's Arts and Industries Building in Washington D.C. His second book, Nothing Personal, in 1964 was a turning point although it was savaged by critics who scoffed at the idea of fashion photographers having anything serious to say.
Still, Avedon's reputation as a major creative force in American art rested almost solely on his portraiture. He himself believed that to be his legacy, and his fashion work as a diversion that earned him money. Which brings us to the current exhibition at the International Center of Photography in New York City, billed as Avedon Fashion 1944-2000. Running from May 15 through September 6, 2009, it removes any doubt that fashion pictures can be just as worthy of being called "art" as portraits, reportage, landscapes, or what have you.
In my opinion, Avedon's fashion photography — especially the earlier work up until the mid-1960s — outshines even the best of his portraits and will be remembered long after the subjects of his politically-charged portraits have fallen into the dustbin of history.
Perhaps the most iconic of his fashion images are those of Dovima and the Elephants (above), a series with different gowns shot at the Cirque d'Hiver (Winter Circus) in Paris in August 1955 for the Harper's Bazaar Fall Collections issue. The fashions were by Dior. Although I was his second assistant at that time, I was unhappily not present on this job — only the number one guy (Frank Finocchio) got the coveted annual Paris assignment. It was shot using natural overhead skylight with an 8x10 Deardorff camera. Dovima was one of Avedon's favorite models and was great fun to be around. Her real name was Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, which she shortened to Dovima. Born in 1927 and raised in Queens, New York, she had an accent that many a comedian would have died for.
Another one of his favorite models was Susy Parker, whose face graced his photos for quite a few years. This shot was taken in the old Harper's Bazaar studio on Rue Jean-Goujon in Paris, which was replaced in 1965 with a new one that I helped design. In this, the old studio, the cramped darkroom of the world's master printer, André Gremola, was just behind the background wall. This shot was also done with an 8x10 Deardorff camera.
By the early 1960s Avedon was becoming increasingly disenchanted with the fashion world. Not fashion photography per se, but the people who inhabit the strange world of haute-couture. Along with his co-conspirator Marvin Israel (1924-1984), who at the time was the Art Director of Harper's Bazaar, he made his bold statement while photographing the 1962 Fall Collections in Paris. I was the prime assistant on all of these shoots and still have vivid memories of it — especially the celebratory late-night dinner after it was all over, with Dick and his wife Evie, Mike, Susy, Marvin, and myself.
Instead of the usual romantic studio or location shots, the pair presented fashions in the context of a gossip column inspired by the steamy affairs between Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton during shooting of the movie Cleopatra. Here are some of the results:
He never got away with that again. And Marvin was replaced as Bazaar's Art Director soon afterwards. The memory of this just won't go away, in fact I was interviewed about it by the BBC in London in August 2008 — and again in February 2009 for a leading American arts magazine.
Most of the time, however, his fashion photography was just plain elegant, as in the image on the left of model Carmen skipping along the streets of Paris, obviously inspired by the work of the 1930's photographer Martin Munkácsi.
This is only a tiny hint at what visitors to the museum will find; after all, it covers some 56 years of fashion photography, with over 200 photographs on display. Check it out here.
And while you're at it, find out about the many books and videos devoted to his art.