Avedon Fashion Photography Exhibit in Detroit


While at home in Michigan I went with my mom to see the Avedon Fashion Photographs 1944-2000 at the Detroit Institute of Arts. It’s the first stop of the exhibit that I assume will travel but I’m not sure. It runs in Detroit through January 17.

Overall I’d give the exhibit a good review. A-/B+. It was packed which is fab for Detroit on a bitter cold day.

Dovima, evening dress by Fath, Paris, August 1950

There were numerous images flowing between multiple rooms painted stark white, black, and grey. No photos were permitted so I’ve included some I found online that were in the exhibit to illustrate this post. It was a mix of prints and magazine images from different aspects of his career, and panels discussed that Avedon felt they should be displayed differently and served different purposes.

The images weren’t too crowded together, and in each room there was a display case with magazines featuring other pieces of his work. Although it was a fairly stark, photo-centered exhibit, the panels didn’t speak much of photography technique, and instead focused on his role socially and within the fashion system. These commentaries, which were somewhat further explored in the accompanying audio tour (a free system where you call from your own cell phone) were often the most interesting part, but could have been greatly enhanced. It seemed that the curators wanted to bring up many intriguing points about Avedon’s relevance throughout the decades, but would leave us hanging with concepts alone, and not more thorough explanations. Examples were the discussions of aesthetics within his work, his potential for irony and humor poking fun at the fashion industry he was so beautifully showcasing, and most glaringly the brief mention of his breaking down racial barriers within the arts. Each of these were fascinating concepts that were thrown out there as food for thought instead of richly investigated. Perhaps in the $100 stunning book I decided I could not afford….

Veruschka, dress by Kimberly, New York, January 1967

On a related note, my only other potential complaint was that although it was a fashion photography exhibit, I seemed to primarily be overhearing patron talk of the fashions shown, with questions about movement, color, weight, fit, etc. It might have been nice to see video or even the real deal displayed to get a more complex view of what he was working with. But of course that’s my own bias a little showing through. If the focus was strictly the photography itself, more focus on technique would have been interesting. Those behind the scenes details do make the exhibition viewer appreciate the craft more.

So onto to the details. Most of it was fabulous of course, it is Avedon after all! However, seeing that much in one place it became clear he did have strong suits and weak areas just like everyone else.

Here are some notes:


  • The Dorian Leigh images from the 40s were simply gorgeous.
  • movement

  • The audio commentary discussed Avedon’s appreciation for aesthetics including movement in photography because he felt “real people move” and should be shown in natural poses. Yet the people in the crowd next to me were saying “he never has them stand straight!” in an irritated tone. I agree with Avedon of course.
  • elephants-better

  • The faux movie stills from the 50s and 60s were less striking than his more refined and focused shots highlighting a model and a dress. Granted this was some early imagery that would be copied a thousand times over (famously and honestly more effectively by Cindy Sherman). There seems to be great revernce for the elephant shot, but I think it’s sort of lame. Most of the overly contrived ones were a little lacking. The imitation Elizabeth Taylor/Richard Burton tabloid shots of the ’60s were probably the best of the style, but still somewhat overdone. Overall, this concept wasn’t his strong suit at all as they’re too forced. He was so much better with simple shots done beautifully like no one else could do them.
  • Speaking of beauty-the Balmain, Balenciaga, Patou, Dior, and Gres dresses to name a few, so so amazing, and models Suzy Parker and Dovima from the 50s made them look like perfect specimens of cut, line, drape, fit, and creativity.
  • Another model however was a total dud, Sunny Harnett. The commentary discussed that the Harnett images were to evoke travel, desire and wealth but they looked cheesy and forced. She didn’t have that special quality the others did and her images looked just like all those terrible 80s perfume and jewelry ads. Why would later advertizing copy his worst looks and images of Dovima and Dorian Leigh cannot seem to be touched with a ten foot pole? Must be a sign of how great the latter were.
  • Regarding Dovima, any shot she was in jumps off the page. Her arched eyebrows, curved figure, dancer’s posing and grace, and striking features made her images a true professional peak for Avedon. He found his perfect muse.
  • My mom noted that the man in many midcentury photos was Garder McKay from the TV show Adventures in Paradise. She kept saying how gorgeous he was at the time and he did in fact stand up to the quality of some of Avedon’s best female icons.
  • Does anyone else thing the 1959 shot of socialite Herietta Tiarks in a coat by Cardin looks very strikingly like the image Bjork put together for her Homogenic album cover? That image is already a copy of a Devon Aoki magazine shot if I remember correctly, but now I think both are Avedon rip-ffs. I could not find the Tiarks image to show you, but perhaps you know it?
  • In the 60s there were many shots of celebrity women that were quite good. Portraiture done in a similar style to the early fashion photography. The commentary discussed that he liked unusual women, with unexpected features and proportions. This type of sentiment logically grabs my attention.
  • dovima_dog

  • One of my fav shots was the one that was used for the billboards all over Detroit of Dovima and an afghan dog. The commentary brought to light ideas that it could be an aesthetic visual challenge placing them at the same level, or perhaps it’s a joke on the fashion industry that both so beautifully represent. I decided I couldn’t live without at least the postcard of this one. Beauty and humor. Fabulous.
  • 081

  • One panel heading into the 60s briefly discussed Avedon’s breaking down racial barriers in the fashion industry in that time period. I would have loved more chat on this, and I think the crowd would have as well since there was a life-sized blow up of hometown icon Donyale Luna and patrons noticeably noting the oversized afro fashion shot. Also, his frequent 50s model, China Michado was of Asian descent so it seems breaking down racial barriers was a concept he explored earlier than the 60s.
  • In the 60s Avedon seemed to hit the same stride he did in the 40s and early 50s. He seemed inspired again and didn’t need to fabricate so many lame scenarios to showcase beauty. The youthquake themed photos highlighting designers such as Rabanne and were amazing against the stark sets. Plus, it was a glorious time for models who could knock your socks off including Verushcka, Donyale Luna, Penelope Tree, and Jean Shrimpton.
  • harpers-bazaar

  • The 60s magazines featured were cool to see up close. The famous Bazaar image of the pink space helmet being constructed with paper glued on to a shot and notes about color choice felt personal and I always enjoy some behind-the-scenes. This was enjoyable earlier in the exhibition as well with a room of engraver’s prints with captions and notations from famed editor Carmel Snow. Some of the ready-to-publish shots were also blown up in different ways by Avedon for gallery showing. Seeing them side by side was a unique display of the relationships and differences between editorial/ad with art.
  • Finally, the shots form the 70s & 80s lost something in being the firsts we saw in color, especially in 70s/80s with clothes being so boring in that era. My mom had been asking for color shots all through the exhibit, and then when presented with them we both agreed they were far inferior to the brilliant B&Ws. His 90s work thankfully remedied that as the shots were back to the themes he did best and 90s designers like Chalayan and Galliano utilized some of the architectural cool and innovative forms of beauty that harkened back to the 40s best while looking completely fresh.
  • In closing, I think it was a lovely exhibit that was amazing in its size and scope and had something for everyone. More commentary through panels or the audio tracks would have enhanced the appreciation as that which was provided would toss at you fascinating concepts that I’m anxious to explore further. But for my $12 I think it was a great afternoon and a visual treat above any other I’d recently experienced. I guess if I splurge the $100 for the book I can dig in deeper.

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    • Pam Marcil January 11, 2010 11.14 am

      I’m on staff at the DIA and I just wanted to say that I really enjoyed your thoughtful comments. It’s always interesting (and helpful) to read reactions to DIA exhibitions.

    • Heather January 11, 2010 02.52 pm

      Wonderfully helpful review Monica – I love the bullet points. We should compare notes – I recently saw the Avedon exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Art (though that was a full overview of his career, not just the Fashion Photography).

    • Worn Through » Exhibits!
      December 9, 2010 - 5:02 am

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