AT THE MUSEUM Portraits of the modern American woman

How Richard Avedon transformed fashion photography, and fashion itself

3161 avedon
Go, Suzy, go: Avedon liked to capture women in motion. In this scene from Paris in the summer of 1956, his muse Suzy Parker roller-skates in a Dior dress.
Richard Avedon

Avedon Fashion: 1944–2000

Museum of Fine Arts Boston

August 10, 2010–January 17, 2011

Fashion photography tells a story. With each ad campaign, each extravagant photo shoot, haute couture designers and stylists are selling a story about a woman, about a lifestyle. The woman decked out in pearls with a cigarette perched between gloved fingers and leaning coyly into a handsome Clark Gable-look alike is perhaps a wealthy matron meeting her lover. The young girl applying eyeliner carefully, tongue stuck out in concentration allows the public an intimate glimpse into perhaps the last five minutes before a date with a beau.

Richard Avedon’s exhibit at the MFA, “Avedon Fashion: 1944-2000” displays not only the transformation of American fashion but also Avedon’s own impact on the specific genre of photography.

Fashion photography was not always about the lifestyle. The lifestyle is what Avedon sells. Glossy portraits capture women not simply wearing beautiful clothes in luxuriously exotic settings, but the essence of the modern American woman — Avedon’s modern American woman, that is. She’s regal but charming, witty and sophisticated, flaunts her individuality but does not throw away her femininity. Avedon’s ability to create this modern woman set the standard for high-fashion photography. It became no longer just about a particular dress or a particular pair of shoes, but rather the spirit of the woman wearing those things and the story behind the fashion.

Avedon launched several women and brands into success. The MFA exhibit follows Avedon through several decades. Models picked up along the way include Suzy Parker, Audrey Hepburn, Twiggy and China Machado. Suzy Parker was Avedon’s muse during the 50’s — the model later went on to proclaim: “The only joy I ever got out of modeling was working with Dick Avedon.” Vogue depicted her as one of the faces of the confident, post-war American woman. Hepburn herself would be forever immortalized by Avedon’s prints, especially those highlighting her later trademark features — the defined brows, that wide-eyed gaze.

Through the pictures, one can sense if not the man, at least his relationships with the models. As the chief photographer for Harper’s Bazaar in the 50’s, Avedon broke away from the then-conventional mode of fashion photography — emotionless models posed in stiff positions with vacant eyes. Many of Avedon’s subjects were bursting with emotion — twinkling gazes, unrestrained laughter. Avedon was able to bring both the models and fashion to life. His work will continue to awe and impress, be they the iconic images or the simpler snapshots. Avedon through the ages shows not only how he worked with the changing styles but how he molded the public’s perception of high fashion and the modern American woman.

The exhibition will be running at the MFA until January. Remember to bring your MIT ID to the MFA for free admission!