Photographer, Model & Elephants

The native New Yorker, Richard Avedon, took the picture during a fashion assignment for Harpers Bazaar in 1955, at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris.

It depicts the elegant model Dorothy Virginia Margaret Horan, known as Dovima, in a dramatic black evening sheath with a white satin sash designed by a young Yves Saint Laurent for Dior, striking a graceful pose between two circus elephants; the bend of her arms echoing that of the animals’ trunks.

The magazine, the more daring rival of American Vogue, was always looking for different and more dramatic ways to report on fashion, And at the age of only 22 it hired Richard Avedon and gave the young tyro cart blanche.

His photography made him an instant celebrity. Compounded by the 1957 film musical Funny Face, which saw Audrey Hepburn play the reluctant model to Fred Astaire’s pushy fashion photographer. The character was named Dick Avery. Avedon was the creative advisor on the film and Dovima had a bit part as a vacuous model.

‘Dovima and the Elephants’ has undergone endless analysis as to why it is such an iconic image – it contrasts nature with artifice, youth with age, ugly with beautiful, real with fake, in essence it is a symphony in shades of black and white and grey.

Avedon, the subject of a new biography by Philip Gefter, used a bulky, large-format camera, the reason why his photographs (almost always in black and white and often taken against a seamless white backdrop) have such high definition.

Counter intuitively; many of his fashion shots look fleetingly spontaneous – a woman jumping over a puddle for instance. But they were invariably the result of painstaking preparations, one model’s flyaway scarf held in place by an invisible line of fishing wire.

Avedon disliked working on location. He once said: “I always prefer to work in the studio, it isolates people from their environment, they become, in a sense, symbolic of themselves.” Over the years he photographed almost everyone of note, from a naked Nureyev to a sad Monroe, from Karen Blixen to the Kennedy clan.

Avedon was a native New Yorker. He left school at 19 and during World War II he was in the photography section of the Marines, learning how to work under pressure and to deadline. He went on to work for magazines on fashion and celebrity portraits and for advertising agencies.

In 1968 he put his stamp on a campaign for fur coats. Stars were swathed in mink and shot against a dark background – Joan Crawford, Judy Garland, Maria Callas, Lauren Bacall. The headline ran ‘what becomes a legend most’, the title of his biography.

By 1960 Avedon was a huge success. He and his wife moved to an elegant apartment on Park Avenue and his earnings topped $250,000 a year (average US income at the time was $5,500) but what he always craved, to be taken seriously as an artist, almost eluded him. Serious artistic photographers dismissed him as being too commercial.

Avedon and writer Truman Capote started out together as young hopefuls at Harper’s Bazaar and shared many friends like CBS head Bill Paley and his wife Babe. When Capote was writing his bestseller In Cold Blood in 1960 about the vicious and senseless murder of a farming family in Kansas he got Avedon to travel out to photograph the killers showing off their homemade tattoos.

Then, between 1979 and 1984 Avedon travelled across America, from Texas to Idaho with his bulky view camera, tripod and white background for his ‘In the American West’ series. He conducted 752 sittings. His plan was to create what Gefter calls ‘a body of work well beyond measure in the history of photography’. The subjects were described as the West’s unsung heroes – labourers, drifters, waitresses, hobos, jailbirds, freckled adolescents.

Many observers were shocked at the coldness and inhumanity of the images and there is something of the police photo about them. There was a lavish coffee table book and a touring exhibition and a single print would sell for $14,000, more than some of his sitters hoped to earn in a lifetime.

Inevitably, Avedon was often asked if he felt he had exploited his subjects. He felt he hadn’t. “My photographs are much more about me than the people I photograph,” he said. “Photographs are not accurate, none of them tell the truth.”

Ten years after the elephants picture the fashion world had moved on. London took over from Paris and models like Dovima were passé. Although Avedon’s career went from strength to strength (he worked up until the day he died in 2004 aged 81) Dovima’s trajectory was a sad one.

Once the world’s highest-paid fashion models she died almost penniless. Having made a failed attempt at acting and ended her days as a hostess in a pizza parlour. She succumbed, in 1990, to liver cancer at the age of 62.

Info: What Becomes a Legend Most by Philip Gefter is published by Harper/Collins £25. www.harpercollins.co.uk

Twitter: @KenWilson84

Dovima and the Elephants, a game changer

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The studio isolates people from their environment; they become, in a sense, symbolic of themselves