A Sense of Movement
Born in 1923, Richard Avedon’s career spanned nearly half a century. In 1946, he set up his own studio and was quickly providing images to Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar: work which would define his photographic style for the rest of his career. All three photographs discussed could be said to be commercial, in that they were produced for magazines and fashion houses in order to show off the clothes; yet, each one is also an artistic masterpiece in and of itself. The setting is Paris, in the Place de la Concorde; a place Avedon returns repeatedly for inspiration.
What is fundamentally remarkable about Richard Avedon’s Paris photographs is their dynamic sense of vitality. The photos I have chosen to examine encompass a ten-year period in which we observe the maturation of a photographer whose early experiments in movement culminate in 1957 with one of the most elegant photographs of twentieth century fashion. These photographs define Paris for us: a simple elegance, composed of contrasting black-on-white, and a wonderfully keen awareness of the spatial dimensions of the body.
Beginning first with the 1947 Dior shoot, we cannot help but join the three men, lingering out of focus, in a voyeuristic observation of the female subject; as she turns away from the viewer, Avedon invites us into the spectacle. Looking analytically, it is a wonderfully crafted image: the stiff back, neck and arms of the woman contrasts with the fluid movement of the skirt. The folding of the fabric, caused by the sudden twirl, reflects the undulating waves of an ocean and breaks up the clear linear pattern formed by the paving slabs beneath her. The black clothing, fanning out below the woman’s torso, sits perfectly within the center of the shot in an almost renaissance adherence to artistic composition; the three men acting as the perfect break to the otherwise symmetrical pose. Ultimately, it is only the firmly planted foot that we see, as she pivots around, which prevents the model from taking off.
The 1956 photograph, again for Dior, demonstrates the progression of nine years in the artist’s ability. Avedon’s composition is, once more, remarkable, especially considering the complex movement of the two subjects. The planted legs form a neat parallel with one another, whilst the lifted legs create a ninety-degree angle. The man’s outstretched arm and the woman’s scarf form a similar visual pattern mimicking the line of Louis XV buildings, which stretch the northern length of the Place de la Concorde. As with the first photograph, the faces are turned away from the camera; the subjects do not break the barrier of the lens but, instead, are caught in this moment of pure joy.
The final photograph, the 1957 shot, is the apex of such dynamic posing. It is beautifully elegant: the erect back, the hand in pocket, the long thin legs stretching out into the road. And yet, despite the beauty of the shot, Avedon never fails to remember that this is a commercial venture. The coat is the focus of the viewer’s gaze; we are drawn into the folding cloth. The three points – each shoe and the umbrella – direct the eyes inwards towards the product itself.
The success of these photographs almost certainly comes from their sense of movement – the camera capturing a singular moment in the progression of the individual. By injecting such vitality into the images, we get a sense of narrative playing out behind the scene; peering through the camera’s lens, Avedon allows us to observe this distinctly Parisian narrative unfold in all its splendor.
W. J. Humphries