It turns out that October is fashion month at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, so there’s probably no better time to check out the extensive photography exhibit, “Avedon Fashion: 1944-2000,” in the MFA’s Foster Gallery. Even a quick walk through the galleries shows how Richard Avedon helped shape some of today’s biggest names in fashion photography.
While sauntering through the black-and-white rooms, you pass from the ladylike 1940s all the way through the inexplicably (and literally) dirty last photos taken in 2000. Because of Avedon’s gift for bringing his models to life you will see not only the changes in high fashion, but also the results of the cultural tectonics that accompanied them. In the 1940s, he managed to catch the return of joie de vivre to postwar Paris through fun scenes and easy movement of fabrics. The beach scenes of the mid-forties are downright adorable, and the slightly later shots (often featuring Dior) capture the glamour of the era while alternating between joyful and melancholy—the mood swings of the postwar world. His 1949 Paris photograph of Dorian Leigh in a coat by Dior on the Avenue Montaigne, sitting in a carriage next to a bouquet of flowers and a tearful-looking puppy, shows gratitude and loss. What might be called hopeful chic contrasts beautifully with the model’s grim contemplation on her cigarette ashes.
It wasn’t until the 1950s that the French scenes became intensely romantic. The wide-eyed Suzy Parker contrasts sharply with the intensity of Dovima and her dramatic couture. There are two particularly striking photographs from this era: an up-the-nose shot of Coco Chanel that clearly captures her berating some unlucky someone, and a bust portrait of Gloria Vanderbilt in nothing but mascara and glowing white skin, with perfectly coiffed black hair.
A 1959 hair shot of Brigitte Bardot bridges the gap to the 1960s, when photos become a lesson in social change as much as anything else. From Jean Shrimpton and Suzy Parker’s undeniable glamour in the first half of the decade, to Audrey Hepburn as a veiled giraffe in 1967, to a series of bohemian outdoor shots featuring Angelica Houston in 1969--Avedon’s fashion photography captured the evolution of American life.
The 1970s are represented by Lauren Hutton in businesswoman wear and lingerie, an androgynous photo of Veruschka for a Jun-Rope ad campaign, and a striking shot of Bianca Jagger. The 1980s bring a collection of Vogue covers with conspicuous eyebrows and lots of leather. The 1990s are dominated largely by “‘In Memory of the late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort,’ A Fable,” a series of photos with model Nadja Auerman and a skeleton in scenes that range from funny to odd to intensely creepy. The ‘90s also bring a new era of overt sexuality that Avedon helped shepherd into the mainstream.
It is primarily because of the beauty of the photographs and the subjects themselves that makes this exhibit well worth visiting. But there is something about a collection that demonstrates what has happened culturally over the last 70 years, and gives you much to think about after walking out the door. This traveling exhibit put together by the International Center of Photography in New York will be in Boston until January 17.