Richard Avedon Exhibit at the Norton Museum as Much About Personality as Fashion

Unless you’re a dyed-in-the-wool fashionista, it might be best to approach “Avedon Fashion 1944-2000,” now at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach, not so much as a show about fashion as one about personality.

There’s personality aplenty on display here. Take Jeanne Moreau in a Pierre Cardin evening dress, circa 1962. Or Elizabeth Taylor in 1964, her face framed by a swirl of black feathers. Or an impossibly young and beautiful Gloria Vanderbilt, posing in 1953 in not much of anything, apparently, but her own regal skin.

As these and other images like them demonstrate, Richard Avedon, who died in 2004 at age 81, was an incomparable chronicler of the rich and famous. These celebrity shots, however, are like little bonuses sprinkled along the way, because what Avedon really excelled at, in his fashion photography, was capturing that indefinable something that has always been a hallmark of the best models.

It’s there in the shot widely known as Dovima With Elephants (1955), which opens the exhibition. The great 1950s model stands flanked by a pair of the big beasts, right hand on the trunk of one, left hand reaching for an ear of the other, her dress (by Dior) and the setting (Cirque d’Hiver) overshadowed by the grandeur of her gestures and the magnificence of her animal companions, not to mention her aristocratic profile. It’s a justifiably famous image that shows what Avedon was capable of with the right model and the right props.

The exhibition, organized by New York’s International Center of Photography, is the first to cover Avedon’s entire career in fashion photography. It features more than 150 photographs and related objects, such as copies of magazines, starting with his formative years at Harper’s Bazaar, moving on through the often-turbulent years at Vogue, concluding with his work at the New Yorker, where he made history as the magazine’s first staff photographer.

Both photography and fashion, it seems, were in Avedon’s blood. He got his start in the former at age 19, when he joined the Merchant Marine and spent a couple of years taking I.D. photos of the crew, reportedly with a camera his father gave him as a parting gift. His immersion in the latter came soon after, when an art director for Harper’s Bazaar discovered him in 1944 working as a department store photographer and snatched him up.

It was as an American in Paris, however, that Avedon came into his own. With his first wife, Doe, he went to Paris for the first time in 1947, and one of the show’s strengths is that it highlights what a transformative experience the city was for him. An essay in the massive exhibition catalog sets the scene beautifully: “The overt celebration of fashion was a key element in the reawakening of civilized culture in the immediate postwar years. For the duration of the war, the skills, creativity, and joy associated with fashion in Europe and in the U.S. had been largely put on hold.”

Avedon was there for that reawakening and smart enough to know how to capitalize on it. Although he would later become known for his mastery of the studio environment, the Avedon of 1940s Paris treated the city like a big set, with himself as a one-man film crew. Working with such inimitable models as Dorian Leigh, Elise Daniels, and his own wife, he created images suffused with seeming spontaneity and the sheer pleasure of their own making.

Models like Dovima, Suzy Parker, Carmen, and Sunny Harnett took center stage in the ’50s, and as the capital of the fashion world, Paris remained a favored setting. But Avedon also proved he was equally at home on location, a gift that would serve him well in years to come.

The culture changed radically in the 1960s, and Avedon changed with it, energized by a fresh set of models that included Twiggy, Veruschka, Jean Shrimpton, and Penelope Tree. He had long been a master of the human figure in action, but like many of his contemporaries, he also found something liberating in the counterculture, and he brought that new freedom to his work.

It would be both unkind and unfair to say that Avedon’s fashion photography went downhill in the ’70s and beyond, but to judge from the scant evidence presented here, there was nothing to compare with his previous landmark work. By then, of course, Avedon had established himself as much more than a fashion photographer. He had a major show at the Met in 1978, the same year he landed on the cover of Newsweek, and in 1985, he published In the American West, a much-talked-about book of portraiture.

Starting in 1980, Avedon poured himself into a fruitful two-decade association with Gianni Versace that yielded some of his most sensuous work in color ads. But by the time of “In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort,” a New Yorker photo essay from 1995, he seemed to have said all he had to say about fashion, in this case reducing it to a dance with death. As this retrospective of an amazing career makes clear, however, fashion fades. Personality lasts forever.

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