The Fashionable Photographer and his Fashions

Richard Avedon, the photographer who “invented” modern fashion photography, had a career spanning sixty years, and the MFA is hosting one stupendously fashionable retrospective of his work.

No, it’s not a piece of paper stuck over my head, it’s FASHION.

Put your best dress on, Martha, because you are going to want to go.

Wait, I’m almost ready!

Dorian Leigh, hat by Paulette, Paris studio, August 1949
Photograph Richard Avedon
© The Richard Avedon Foundation

Having grown up when I grew up (meaning that when I was in high school you were not properly attired until you had applied four shades of eye shadow and three shades of eye liner, wore sequins and tottered about in stilettos—yes, to first period Chemistry), what you wore defined who you were. Or rather, what you wore described who you hoped others would think you were.

And that’s what what we wear is about, isn’t it? Who you are, who you want to be thought of as, who you aspire to become. I still have evening gowns in my closet that I don on occasion (meaning, it’s Saturday morning and I’m the only one in the house), just to make sure I could still be “that” person if I need to/want to.

Mr. Avedon defined the look of fashion advertising, the look that people wanted to have for themselves. His photography gave movement and energy and joy, even, to clothing ads.

Wouldn’t I look lovely in those…

Prior to his arrival (at the age of 21 with the sale of one photograph to Bonwit Teller’s for $7.50) photography of clothing was very practical, mostly in the form of studio-based front/back/side static poses.

Avedon took his models outside, in real surroundings (or made-to-look-real surroundings). The models were photographed twirling, primping, laughing. Good lord, these models could be actual people, doing actual people things! Caused quite a stir.

The fashionable way to jump a puddle

Avedon came to fashion photography just after the war. Harper’s Bazaar sent him to Paris to do some editorial fashion shots. Paris after the war was bombed out, and its people worn out. So much destruction to such a beautiful city, its culture and fashion dampened by four-and-a-half years of Nazi occupation, with shortages of everything from shoes to tires to milk.

Avedon’s images were images of hope, images that expressed the idea that women could once again look lovely and that Paris could once again be “The City of Lights.”

Twirling is not just for little girls…

And that was Avedon’s thing, as it were; expressing the idea that women were beautiful and loved wearing fashion. He captured how women enjoyed wearing clothes, as expressed in this image:

Enchenté, darling

Avedon worked continuously, and anticipated and embraced the changing ideas in the fashion world, from the opulent ‘50’s:

I get pouty when there’s no champagne
Sunny Harnett, evening dress by Gres, Casino, Le Touquet, France, August 1954
Photograph Richard Avedon
© The Richard Avedon Foundation

To the “Youth Quake” of the ‘60’s:

Nothing like a fashion shoot with no clothes in it…

After long stints with Harper’s and Vogue, Avedon moved into more portraiture and advertising work. This exhibit, however, focuses exclusively on his fashion portfolio, and it’s a pleasure to meander through it, stopping at images that, well, make you stop. It’s almost hard to remember that fashion photography was his job, and he got paid to show off the clothes. His images make you want to be that person, not just wear what she’s wearing.

The quality of the images is stunning, but the exhibit doesn’t shy away from showing you the backroom, as it were.

Ya cut it here, ya slice it here, and ya got ourself a good pitcha…

The design of the exhibition is very enjoyable. I highly suggest reading the wall text to garner a sense of the work and the time.

Darling, it’s not paper, it’s FASHION.
Okay, it might be paper. But just a little bit.

He was on assignment for The New Yorker when he died, doing what he loved doing right up to the end.

Thanks, man.

Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 is a traveling exhibit, organized by the International Center of Photography (ICP) with the cooperation of The Richard Avedon Foundation. It is at the MFA until January 17, 2011, and is free with admission to the museum.

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