Delight In the Brilliant Fashion Photography by Richard Avedon Spanning Nearly Six Decades, but Just Don’t Do the Cha-Cha
I felt anxious with anticipation as I purchased my tickets to see Richard Avedon’s fashion photography exhibit, (running now until January 17) at the Detroit Institute of Arts last weekend. As I made my way through the museum, I thumbed through the Visitor Map and Information Guide to the DIA. In the back of the guide, I noticed with amusement the following quote under Museum Etiquette: “Please do not run, skip, hop, jump, slide, tumble or cha-cha in the museum galleries and halls. Walking is our preferred method of movement in the building.” Apparently, strolling is also allowable.
Upon entering the gallery, I learned Richard Avedon started his career in photography at the age of 21 under the mentorship of Alexey Brodovitch, the talented art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Avedon went on to become one of the most influential photographers ever. Some of his influential methods include: his pioneering use of movement, the juxtaposition of his subjects, his ability to create a story behind the still image, his diverse use of models and his exploration beyond conventional beauty.
Avedon’s fashion images move beyond basic catalogue photos of women wearing beautiful gowns and instead, take us on a voyeuristic trip witnessing an evening of fashionable society. Each still frame elicits a story as with model Sunny Harnett, seen above leaning seductively over the roulette table, cigarette in hand, at a casino table in Le Touquet, France in August 1954.
In another image from this group, figures of varying ages surround the model and one can’t help but notice the juxtaposition of her youth in comparison to the aged countenance of a neighboring female gambler. You are left wondering who these characters are and longing for more. The series moves her from the casino on to the theater, then exiting from a car and finally ending her evening at the doorway of a posh hotel. Avedon is not only the photographer behind the beautiful clothes in each of these pictures, he has been described as a skilled director, guiding the models much like actors, drawing out a broad range of emotion.
He is also famous for the sense of movement in his photography. Models are seen stretching every limb, jumping from curbs, leaping into the air–sometimes jumping himself to get an interesting shot—gracefully bringing his images to life. Fashion photographer’s today use many of the techniques he employed (see my post What I Did This Summer for a modern example.)
While moving through the gallery, I was struck by his daring use of multi-cultural models. Avedon used African American models such as native Detroiter Donyale Luna. As well as China Machado–a woman of both Portuguese and Chinese heritage—during a time when the standard of beauty demanded fair Caucasian skin.
Once when Avedon was pressured to refrain from using China Machado in a Harper’s Bazaar layout, (Hearst publications had a strict protocol to exclude “ethnic looking” models) the photographer threatened to quit. The magazine was forced to relent.
One thing is clear—Avedon’s work is eternal. Throughout the exhibit, I couldn’t help but feel the work that he created is so timeless that if I saw them in next month’s Vogue, I would believe they were recently taken.
After leaving the exhibit, I stopped by the theater across the hall for the 90-minute documentary, “American Masters: Richard Avedon, Darkness & Light.” The incredible PBS film runs in a continuous loop while the exhibit is open, taking you deeper into the mind of Richard Avedon and his mesmerizing work in not only fashion, but portraiture as well. I highly recommend it—just don’t let the docent catch you doing the cha-cha on your way out.
For more information on the exhibit or to buy tickets, go to DIA.org.
A special thank you to The Richard Avedon Foundation for the use of the images in this post.
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