Pairs in Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’

 

Starting in 1979 Richard Avedon began a project, commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Texas, documenting the American West. He spent five years traversing the western part of the United States taking portraits of average, overlooked people. The project concluded with an exhibition of selected works and a catalogue called In the American West. The magical quality of these photographs is in the immediate connection the viewer forges with subject. Looking at these photographs you begin to feel as though you know the person in the portrait. Part of this comes from the equalizing way Avedon went about taking each photograph:“I photograph my subject against a sheet of white paper about nine feet wide by seven feet long that is secured to a wall, a building, sometimes the side of a trailer. I work in the shade because sunshine creates shadow, highlights, accents on a surface that seem to tell you where to look. I want the source of light to be invisible so as to neutralize its role in the appearance of things”.  Avedon created a blank slate where the personality of the subject could be freely expressed without any distractions. In this neutral space, the sartorial choices of the subjects come under greater scrutiny and become even more symbolic of their inner lives. What struck me as particularly interesting in these photographs was they ways in which Avedon photographed pairs and how their bodies interacted within the frame.

In Rusty McCrickard and Tracy Featherstone, Dixon, California 1981 a man and woman stand staring directly into the camera. The woman is dressed in matching tropical print shorts and a button up top, while the man wears jeans and no shirt. Their hands are clasped together in the centre of the frame. The man’s bare chest seems to blend with the white background and create a sense of negative space, contrasting with the woman’s vibrant print. While the man physically takes up more space due to his size, they share the frame fairly equally.

In John and Melissa Harrison, Lewisville, Texas, 1981 there is a sense of harmonious shared space as well. John stands facing the camera straight on. He holds his daughter in the crook of his left arm so that she dangles upside down in front of him. Her right foot hooks around his neck mirroring the angle of his bent arm. His dark clothing contrasts with her white shirt and diaper. Although he, like Rusty McCrickard in Rusty McCrickard and Tracy Featherstone, Dixon, California 1981, is larger than Melissa their intertwined bodies form one unit that sits in the centre of the frame.

In Teresa Waldron and Joe College, Sidney, Iowa, 1979, Teresa stands as the centre of the frame. She hooks her index finger into the pocket of Joe’s jeans, thus linking them together. Her white cowboy hat frames her face, while her light-coloured striped tank and dark jeans contrast with Joe’s silky shirt and lighter-wash jeans. Joe’s prominent, shiny belt-buckle draws the eye to him, yet his body is only partially in the frame. The portrait focuses in on Teresa, while Joe is pushed to the side.

In Jonathan and Sam Stahl, Gilford Montana, 1983 this is taken a step further. While Jonathan, on the left, is prominently featured, Sam, on the right, is only half in the frame. Their matching checked shirts gives the feeling that they are connected. Sam’s arm seems to disappear into the Jonathan, thus enhancing the sense that they are one unit. That being said Jonathan is in the centre while Sam is cut off by the frame, almost as if Avedon capture their image while walking by them. The dynamism he finds in the contrast between bodies in his In the American West series is truly captivating.

Avedon: Ancestor of Photoshop

“All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.”

– Richard Avedon

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay

Audrey Hepburn, shot by Richard Avedon NYC 1967, collage of gelatin silver prints with applied media overlay (and a few tweaks from the author!)

In our very first MA class the inevitable conversation about fashion, its imagery and manipulation of the real body turned to Photoshop. Scourge of contemporary fashion media that it is, a quick trawl through the history of fashion photography will tell you that it is not a new phenomenon. While the technology may not be the same, fashion photographers have been manipulating their images since the earliest years of the genre.

Richard Avedon was an American photographer with a prolific career in fashion. He held positions as lead photographer at Harpers Bazaar and Vogue, shot campaigns for Dior, Versace, Revlon and Calvin Klein among many others and is responsible for some of the most iconic fashion images of the 20th century. He worked relentlessly and consistently from the mid 1940’s until his death in 2004.

Avedon was keenly aware that fashion photography had presumptions toward the ideal. Clothes and models starred, and the image should inspire, appeal and oftentimes—sell. The medium of photography allowed for both a ‘realistic’ and highly adjustable way of making images.

“The minute you pick up the camera you begin to lie—or to tell your own truth. You make subjective judgements every step of the way—in how you light the subject, in choosing the moment of exposure, in cropping the print. It’s just a matter of how far you choose to go.” Avedon

Avedon worked with ‘retoucher’ Bob Bishop for over forty years, manually adjusting photo-negatives. Lengthening necks and legs, making eyes larger and even swapping heads and torsos from different images to create an idealized picture, half a century before Photoshop.

As we rage against photo-manipulation in today’s print media, a moment of reflection on its rootedness in the world of fashion photography may yield new perspectives. Would understanding the subjective role of the photographer make us less desperate to believe the final image is the ‘truth’? Or perhaps it is the influence of celebrity in fashion media, with tightly controlled images and a desire to appear perfectly ‘real’. How many today would surrender their image to the photographer as Audrey Hepburn did in 1967? If we continue to view fashion photography through Avedon’s lens of aspiration and fantasy do we really want to restrict his tools? Perhaps understanding the artifice would simply ruin the magic.

 

Sources

Avedon, Richard. In the American West, 1979-1984 (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985), foreword. Print.

Avedon, Richard, Carol Squiers, and Vince Aletti. Avedon Fashion. New York, NY: Harry N. Abrams, 2009. Print.

Fineman, Mia. “Pictures in Print.” Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop. New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2012. 157. Print.

Revson’s Revlon

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Richard Avedon, Revlon Fire and Ice campaign, Vogue, November 1, 1952.

Gucci Westman, Global artistic director at Revlon, has recently announced that she will be leaving the brand after a seven-year tenure. Since joining Revlon in 2008, Westman has been credited with raising the cosmetic house’s contemporary profile, ironically by returning to the seasonal colour stories that were the brand’s founding principles. Westman draws upon current runway trends, which often reference earlier epochs. The Evening Opulence collection of 2013, for example, with its concentration on vampish oxbloods and deep burgundies, complemented the season’s Gatsby fever, which originated at Prada – the design house behind  the costumes for Baz Luhrmann’s film The Great Gatsby of the same year.

There is a strong link between cosmetic and fashion artistry, as manifested in sell out premium collaborations. We have in recent years seen Phillip Lim and Guy Bourdin for NARS, Gareth Pugh for M.A.C, and Courrèges for Estée Lauder. Their respective brand identities are aestheticized through distinctive colour harmonies and packaging. Cosmetics in this light become an entry point for otherwise inaccessible luxury, and surpass their status as accessory to fashion by becoming part of it. At the same time, however, to achieve this, the ‘host’ brand leverages its own identity, thus conforming to the inherent creative order.

What makes Revlon so fascinating by contrast, not only as a business model, but as a colour house, is that since it’s conception in the 1930s, it has been able to keep up with, if not threaten, luxury contemporaries whilst maintaining a definitive drugstore identity. Functioning like a premium brand, whilst meeting the demand to keep costs low, it is easy to see why Charles Revson saw his company as worthy of premium status. Lindy Woodhead has noted how Elizabeth Arden and Helena Rubinstein were so incensed by Charles Revson’s success, that they would begrudgingly refer to him as ‘the nail man.’

The allusion to wider cultural trends is arguably one of Revlon’s most identifiable qualities. This has been as consistent throughout its history. In 1952, Revlon launched its new lipstick shade, ‘Fire and Ice’, which was accompanied by arguably one of the most iconic campaigns in history. Dorian Leigh was photographed by Richard Avedon wearing a skintight silver dress that mirrored the overt sexuality of the coordinated red lip and nails. The ad’s daring copy asked, ‘Are you made for fire and ice?’ Revlon cleverly reframes outdated assumptions that any woman wearing red is a ‘hussy’, by instead positioning her as a modern woman. By stating that the colour is ‘for the girl who likes to skate on thin ice’, liberated sexuality becomes a rarefied, exotic virtue. The ad connects to youth culture and modernity, and shows how these mimic fashion, since, like Dorian’s dress, they look towards the future.

Revlon was remarkable in many ways, and was notably ahead of its time. Perhaps the most revolutionary factor was that it was a man who was able to democratize beauty in a way that no-one had yet seen, during a time when the industry was monopolized by female beauty entrepreneurs. Recognising the potential for experimentation that nail polish would allow for, Revson provided an outlet for the desires of both the upper and lower classes. His brand was at the forefront of fashion, rather than being qualified by it- a quality still at the heart of the brand today.

 

Sources

Lindy Woodhead. War Paint, Madame Helena Rubinstein and Miss Elizabeth Arden, Their Times, Their Rivalry (Virago Press: London, 2013)

http://www.vogue.co.uk/beauty/2015/04/08/gucci-westman-leaves-revlon-global-artistic-director

 

MA Study Trip to New York City: Voices from the past, visions for the future: a visit to Condé Nast’s New York archive.

One has only to scan the bibliographies of most major academic fashion articles to see that Vogue maintains a position of the highest authority in sartorial research, particularly concerning the interwar years. This is not to say that other contemporary fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar lack academic importance: more so that the material bound to each issue was not deemed worthy of preservation back then, in fact much of Bazaar’s archive – including prints by Richard Avedon, Man Ray and Louise Dahl-Wolfe – was destroyed in the 1980s. This was not the case with Condé Nast’s archive, which dates back to the 1920s, instigated by Mr Nast’s awareness of the monetary value of this vast collection of images. In our recent visit to the New York archive, Shawn Waldron, Senior Director of Archives and Records, showed us just how vast this collection really is. State of the art, temperature-controlled rooms house the thousands of high-quality original prints in colourful, expertly alphabetized folders. The effect is mesmerising, like a sweetshop lined with Steichens and Horsts, instead of Flying Saucers and Humbugs.

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Another room boasts a staggering quantity of loose and bound copies of publications, such as Architectural Digest, Glamour and Vanity Fair and, of course, Vogue. A researcher from a well-known fashion label pores over bound copies of the latter, highlighting the scholastic potential of the archive. Loose copies of many publications are also available for perusal, offering a more haptic experience for the viewer. The archive today is a dynamic editorial asset, both from an information and commercial point of view, and a far cry from ‘The Morgue’ that it once was. Mr Nast’s business model was ahead of its time, incorporating what is known today as ‘Blue Economy’: the process of turning waste into revenue. ‘The Morgue’ transformed into the active editorial asset that it is today, generating revenue through digital licensing and distribution of images.

As an informative resource, apart from the proliferation of beautiful fashion images, the intricate daily contracts visible on each spread, detailing the names, locations and costs of each shoot, are invaluable to the historian. What emerges is the closely linked relationship between business and preservation, and business’ potential in shaping the fashion canon. Were it not for Mr. Nast’s willingness to invest in the protection of his publication’s material, alongside his fastidious account-keeping, this barometer of social and cultural change would not exist.

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The archive promotes cultural research from many other trajectories; with publications, including Charm exposing what editors told young homemakers was necessary to set up home in the interwar period. Similar interdisciplinary research pathways exist within House & Garden, Architectural Digest and Condé Nast Traveler. These publications bring the past alive, and are a testament to the complexity of day-to-day concerns.

These research opportunities would not be possible without the painstakingly selective process of acquisition, organisation, and digitisation, undertaken by Waldron’s team. The resulting collection, with millions of objects, is unique in fashion publishing. Despite the challenges faced by a small team of archivists and photo editors, working with an ever-growing collection, the archive has become a valued editorial asset that can generate income, promote fashion research, and influence new interdisciplinary study.

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