Thursday, October 21, 2010

Richard Avedon & The Fashion System -- Made in France

Richard Avedon [1923-2004], was an American fashion photographer, whose work expanded to include serious portraiture, studies of the body, celebrities, etc. The course of his career exemplifies the tensions between on the one hand the
Fashion System (the exotic, ideal beauty, class aspirations, conspicuous consumption),  and on the other hand the real world of life and death (difficulty, isolation, fear, aging, degradation, embarrassment, etc.). 
Not surprisingly, Avedon's career was the inspiration for the movie musical adaptation Funny Face [Paramount, 1957], which starred Fred Astaire (as the photographer), Audrey Hepburn as his model-muse, and Kay Thompson (best known today as the author of the Eloise books) as the fashion magazine editor (i.e., Harper's Bazaar). Avedon in fact was artistic advisor on the film, and provided a number of images used in the film's opening credits sequence.
Made in France is a limited edition large format monograph [5000 copies, in addition to 100 Signed and Numbered copies including an original photographic print] published on the occasion of an exhibition of the same name at the Fraenkel Gallery [San Francisco] in 2001; and comprised of images made between 1955 and 1959, from a cache discovered by the photographer in his warehouse decades later. The book has an unusual binding, the front and rear rigid boards joined at the spine with a white heavy canvas strip tucked under the board edges, which are trimmed naked. The contents are presented as a photographer's working mock-up, with full-frame tritone digitally scanned black & white plates exactly reproduced to the (contact) scale of the original 8x10 negatives. 
The fashion images, made on assignment by Avedon for Harper's Bazaar, include shots of Suzy Parker, Gardner McKay, Mel Ferrer, Buster Keaton, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Art Buchwald, Dovima, Carmen, as well as of Audrey Hepburn--another ironic instance of life imitating art imitating life. (Parker, it will be remembered, also moved from modeling into acting, whose credits inluded Funny Face, Ten North Frederick [1958, opposite Gary Cooper--another aging romantic leading man!], the The Best of Everything [1959, along with Hope Lange, Martha Hyer, Diane Baker, and an aging Joan Crawford].)      
This slightly incestuous cross-fertilization of media--in which fame, art, glamour, publicity, promotion, personality, decorum, fun and sexiness are all thrown together and feed off each other--is an important marker in the development of the Fashion System, and its influence on American culture and art. Its power--to capture attention and generate interest and market-share--is like a third rail, roughly occupying a position between art and commerce. In Avedon's work, these trends meet or intersect, creating a hybrid documentation in which incompatible dichotomies--of beauty and ugliness, rich and poor, sophistication and provinciality, joy and despondency, frenzy and boredom--are deliberately, and vividly, played off against one other.  
France, and especially Paris, has functioned for at least a century as a reliable aesthetic vertex in American art and folklore. Paris, the reliable old warhorse of culture and fashion. Paris, the romance of modernity (and Modernism). Three years before Funny Face, Hepburn had starred in Sabrina, the fairy-tale narrative of a chauffeur's daughter [Sabrina Fairchild] who improbably ends up marrying the elder son of a filthy rich New York family, after returning from her culinary school studies in...Paris. Hepburn herself--her image, her physique, her particular pixie-like charm and sunny sophistication--would come to seem the very quintessence of fashion chic, the template upon which real life women (e.g., Jackie O' , Princess Grace-Kelly Rainier of Monaco) would model themselves. Hepburn would go on to star in Breakfast at Tiffany's [1961], Paris -- When It Sizzles [1964], and, of course, My Fair Lady (1964, the ultimate parlor-maid rags-to-riches legend).          
Avedon the fashion photographer revolutionized the traditional staged fashion model portrait, posing his subjects in action, against real life backdrops, or in fantasized verité situations, the models engagé, candidly smiling, laughing, primping, acting absurd or silly. He dominated the profession for 40 years (1950's to 1990's). This new spirit defined the post-War attitude toward the highbrow, the pretentious, the portentous, and made elegance exciting and fun, instead of merely austere and conceited. Where Irving Penn's style was cool, precise and occasionally witty, Avedon's was racy, uninhibited and broadly expressive.
Who but Avedon would undertake to pose a fashion model between two lumbering circus elephants, rearing up behind her?
An improbable energy, a tromp l'oeil metaphor for action and jeopardy, in which the raw power of the elephants is dramatically contrasted to the vulnerability of the classically graceful and seemingly unconcerned female model. It's an image meant to shock, a subversive gesture intended to undermine the staid presumptions of fashion contexts; it may now not seem nearly as audacious as it must have when it was made, but even today its powerful tension feels almost unbearable, the balletic dance of the elephants, the ethereal poise of the woman.
Avedon's portraits, which developed over the years alongside his commercial work, from respectful--though unrelentingly unrelieved--reportage--
to a pitiless invasiveness,   
--(the Warhol portrait)--never retreated into the merely tasteful. He understood how wildness, violence, decay, privacy, concealment and isolation are the flipside of the glamor of his commercial work. 
From the tragic wistfulness of Monroe, caught in a slack moment between the personal and the public projection (a hundred times more revealing than a thousand other cheesy snapshots of the 20th Century's favorite official blonde subject)--
--to the mask-like banshee of Marian Anderson in full projection--
Sensuality--which true fashion implies, and is to some certain degree a fulfillment of--is the seduction of appetite for luxury; and the refined photographic image both projects, and contains this elegant surface. A high-end fashion organ like Vogue is both the instrument and the ambience of the imaginary world to which it refers, and at its best, Avedon's approach to imagery transcends and outlives the artifactory, the ephemeral commoditized vanity which it's designed to promote. High fashion is a form of extreme frivolity, but Avedon's unrelenting gaze penetrates through the pervasive insouciance to a core of despair, which often seems just on the verge of breaking through many of his images. There's a grimness to some of the portraits, as here with Pound--
--or here with Reagan--
--which editorialize our confusions and revulsions, becoming visual metaphors for the blunt events of our impossible history. The Fashion System's ruthless disregard for the human distress that accompanies our sometimes chilling pursuit of perfection--whether artistic, literary, or political--and perpetuates the cult of youth, the disillusionment of age, and the empty possessions of the material world--reminds us that public art is ultimately beholden to the demands of the market, nervous, shifting, neurotic. Avedon claims that the images in Made in France constitute "the last period in his career that his fashion work wasn't commercially driven." He would go on to explore other realms of interaction with his varied subjects, for instance, in In the American West [1985], a breathtaking series of dry large format portraits of common trades people and drifters, terrifying and heartbreaking at once. 
At its best, an Avedon portrait expresses something innately in the mind or "soul" of its subject, while discreetly shaping the progress of the relationship between image and perceiver. His pictures are true collaborations between an organic entity, and an engaged eye, so that seeing, the process by which we perceive something both as what it is, and what our minds are making of it, simultaneously--without ambition or envy or disrespect--becomes an interactive process balanced between the act of giving and the act of taking.
The camera's power--in these instances, the fairly cumbersome manipulations inherent in the 8x10 view camera and its incredible caress of the contours of tone and massing--to turn ordinary things into iconic talismans, once again returns us to the place where we began: Looking is a transparency, through which meaning is defined. We stand on one side--the side of understanding--peering through an invisible membrane--towards the unknown. We see it, but can't touch it, or adequately describe it, but we know it's there. We can see it, and it can see us.  


J said...

Finally! Another day of Miss Fiorina and I was about to start chanting from the Book of Revelation.

Avvy's Pound Pic grim? Not really. Venerable, Id say. The aged, weathered zen-poet sort of ne sais kwah.

Reagan's grim, like chimpanzee grim.

Kirby Olson said...

I had never seen the Warhol bullet wound! Wow! There should be a hundred copies of that made to line the hallways of NOW. Many of their top hierarchy celebrated that shooting, and thought S.C.U.M. was a brilliant new idea.

J said...

Ahyeah the NY mutha-f-ers nearly snuffed that chi chi byatch (musta caused it some pain). said...

Have just bought a 2nd hand paperback copy of 'The American West' and its incredible. Have wanted it for years,ever since I saw the exhibition at San Francisco MOMA. Do you know why this particular book is so expensive? Did it have a limited print run?