Dovima, elephants, Dior oh my !

By Brooke Barker


Many exhibits have come and gone to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art but this summer one exhibit has captured the eyes of fashion and photography lovers. 

This exhibit is that American photographer Richard Avedon who took some of the most iconic photographs in the 20th century. The exhibit displays over 200 photographs taken by Avedon that span from 1944-2004. Avedon’s exhibit proves to many doubters that photography and fashion can be art.

Once you enter the exhibit you notice a theme, all the walls are white and all the photos are framed the same except of course for his collection called “in the American west.” This collection is displayed without any frames and carefully protected by some rope fencing. The exhibit is clean, plain, and is pleasantly organized. The people who put together the exhibit showed they used much thought and time to put it together. This time and organization is truly deserved by Avedon.

In the beginning of his career he worked mostly in fashion. He was heavily influenced by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkacsi who revolutionized fashion by taking photos of models in motion. Avedon used this inspiration in many of his photos. In the 50’s he spent his time mostly taking pictures in Paris. One of the most famous pictures from this is Dovima with Elephants. The importance of this photo is clearly displayed in the exhibit. It is blown up and perfectly placed next to the display case of magazines where it came from. He displayed Dovima in an evening dress by Dior and put her in a room covered in hay and sawdust. Also with her were some new models, two fully-grown elephants. This iconic photo proved new ground for what fashion photography could look like. Displaying a new type of fantasy. His work of fashion went throughout his whole career. Some of his most famous photos that were shown in the exhibit were of twiggy with her hair flying through the air or of Veruschka seemingly falling sideways. Most of his fashion photos captured his models in new forms of movement and stance.

Another thing Avedon revolutionized was portrait photography. Many wonder what exactly he was trying to get across with his photos. They were mostly all black and white, which was strange for portrait. Another strange thing is in these portraits rarely were they just standing there in a pose with a posed face. Most of his photos captured something someone laughing, dancing, singing or someone showing emotion somehow. He captured something in every person he photographed. He captured who these people really were in one simple black and white photo.

One of the most breathtaking examples of this was a photo he took of Marilyn Monroe. She was in her normal attire, a beautiful dress with her hair and make up done to perfection but something in her face was clearly off. Usually she was photographed with her famous overjoyed smile but this time something was different. She looked clearly upset. Something no one else had captured in photos of her before. A true sad emotion, something no one thought she possessed. Marilyn herself almost seems taken aback by the emotion she was feeling. 

Not all of his pictures are so morbid though. In a picture of Janis Joplin, he captured her laughing and looking like she was having a good time. One wonders how Avedon managed to capture this. Avedon is not just a lucky man who got a good shoot. He was clearly talented capturing people in a way they had never been captured before. Like in Joplin, showing her with a smile on her face and as a happy woman instead of her in her normally drug educed state.

Avedon did not only simply take pictures of celebrities and models. His collection “In the American West” strayed far from his fashion and celebrity work. He photographed common people (adults and children) showing their everyday lives. He took photos of people in various places from Colorado to Montana. They were all pictured on plain white backgrounds and did not show them in common stereotypes. He challenged these stereotypes (like in most of his work) and showed what the American west truly was. Not the happy farmer with the cute family having an easy days work. He showed them in plain clothing with them displaying clear unhappiness. Proving to most that it was not an easy happy life for these people but it was a struggle for them. This collection of photographs, which strayed from his normal work were perfectly displayed in the exhibit because this was the one room setup different from all the rest.

Avedon’s many pictures are truly the most iconic things of the 20th century. He captured everyone important, many celebrities from the Beatles to Marilyn, politicians’ From Reagan to Obama, mobsters of the Chicago Seven and just the American people. Each picture speaks to something. They do not need color to get across its message whatever the message may be. Avedon’s photos had only one clear commonality and that was they all were portraits in some way other then that every picture had a clear “mind of its own”. The Avedon exhibit is truly a masterpiece just like his work. Make sure to keep in mind though you are only allowed one entrance so use your time wisely and don’t touch the glass!



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