Dovima with the Elephants

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It could be said that Dovima, for whom the term ‘supermodel’ was coined, made a name for herself—literally. Born Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, she took the first two letters of her three given names. Not just that, she also perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, while asked her what she thought of Africa, she replied, “Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt.” When it was explained that Egypt was in Africa, she replied, “I should have charged double rate!” On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk that the photographer Richard Avedon assumed was filled with clothes. When he asked Dovima about the trunk, she told him they were her books. Avedon didn’t want to separate the girl from her books, so they lugged the trunk across the desert only to find out they were her comic books.

Yet, Avedon admired her as “the last of the great elegant, aristocratic beauties… the most remarkable and unconventional beauty of her time”. For him, she posed in many photographs that came to be the most iconic fashion images of the century. The above picture,”Dovima with the Elephants” was taken by Avedon at the Cirque d’hiver, Paris, in August 1955. The dress was the first evening dress designed for Christian Dior by his new assistant, Yves Saint-Laurent.

Dramatic juxtaposition between diaphanous grace and brutish power was achieved by the symmetry between elephants and Dovima, and underlined by the dirty elephants and the clean, elegant model, the rough elephant skin and the smooth fabric of the dress, as well as by gray sprightly but chained elephants and clear-cut and flowing black and white dress. Yet, Avedon was unsatisfied; for the bottom picture, he lamented that, “the sash isn’t right. It should have echoed the outside leg of the elephant to Dovima’s right.” The photo was conspicuously absent Avedon’s seminal photobook, An Autobiography.

Two contrasting studies of Dovima were published by Harper’s Bazaar. The photograph of Dovima in black was reprinted many times but the image of Dovima in white was printed only once and the negative no longer exists. “It disappeared mysteriously,” Avedon said. Dovima, too, disappeared. Always insecure about her looks, she left modeling in 1962, saying, ”I didn’t want to wait until the camera turned cruel”. The woman who earned merely $60 per hour even at the height of her career ended her life working as a waitress in Florida. It was a tragic final act more damning of modern extravagances of fashion than of a simpler, quieter era she represented.

[More about the photo: Smithsonian Magazine, more fashion images by Avedon, link]

 

 

175 thoughts on “Dovima with the Elephants

  1. When as a young student I came across this fabulous photograph in a coffeetable book on Avedon, I felt a pleasurable connection, and I instantly knew where I wanted to be –fashion, fashion, fashion!

  2. Avedon was actually not happy with the second picture, even though it was one of his most recognizable and icon images. I think it’s lovely in all ways that matter! great blog by the way.

  3. Wonderful photos. I must plead unfortunate ignorance, and admit I hadn’t seen them before this post. In my partial defence however, I did at least wonder if the gown was Dior before you confirmed it. The YSL influence is there too.

  4. Dovima may not have been an intellectual giant, but as a model, she was a genius. Just look at those poses. Perfection.

  5. I wonder how she was able to maintain so much grace among such large animals and how the elephants remained so compliant and cooperative. I would be afraid. It seems so natural for her.

  6. Por que los pobres elefantes están encadenados, eso esta mal, si son tan bellos como dicen por que los tienen así

  7. Absolutely beautiful. I feel a little ashamed to say that I have never seen these pictures before. So much better than the advertisements we get shoved down our throats these days!!

  8. There’s no denying that these photographs are beautiful, however, the chains around the elephant’s ankles are somewhat distracting, and quite frankly, make me want to vomit.

  9. […] Dovima (Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) was the model for which the term 'supermodel' was coined. Not only that, she perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, someone asked her what she thought of Africa. To which she replied, "Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt." When they explained that Egypt was in Africa, Dovima replied, "I should have charged double rate!" On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk … Read More […]

  10. Richard Avedon is my favorite photographer, and this is, by far, my favorite photograph. I have seen it at the Phoenix Art Museum alongside the paintings of Monet, etc. I was very surprised to see that he had photographed a couple that I know in my home town. It helped me to fully realize that it “is” a small world after all.

  11. It is my nature to write corny little narratives about the things I see (mostly pics, art and food) on blogs. But this…this I cannot. I am too side tracked, its beauty so perfect. Perhaps a poem?

    So much depends
    upon
    a well dressed
    lady

    saturated
    in dignity

    beneath
    the Elephant’s
    trunk

  12. am i the only one who thinks this picture is overrated? avedon was brilliant, but isn’t something like this better — less literal, less obvious, and with more depth and true beauty?

    just thinking out loud.

  13. […] I got to see this and many other wonderful photos at the Richard Avedon exhibit at the San Francisco MoMA a few years ago. The photo itself is breathtaking. The story accompanying the original post kills this perfect facade by showing how much of an airhead Dovima was, but I tend to forget that most models aren’t known for their wit. Anyway, a picture says 1,000 words, and one should simply let that do the talking. Dovima (Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) was the model for which the term ‘supermodel’ was coined. Not only that, she perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, someone asked her what she thought of Africa. To which she replied, “Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt.” When they explained that Egypt was in Africa, Dovima replied, “I should have charged double rate!” On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk … Read More […]

  14. When I look at these pictures I am amazed by her demeanor and ability to connect with the elephants. I enjoy the symetry of poses in the top photo, the incredible physical comfort of the the bottom. Perhaps these emotions were for only a moment but a moment was all Avedon needed.

  15. hi,firstly,how dare you call the elephants “dirty”. Comparison or symetry (call it what you like) but us humans have many miles to go before we even start to catch sight of “elephant culture”. Secondly i doubt very much that the term “super model” was invented for the brainless twit featured above,cheers,dontarguewithme

  16. […] Dovima (Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) was the model for which the term 'supermodel' was coined. Not only that, she perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, someone asked her what she thought of Africa. To which she replied, "Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt." When they explained that Egypt was in Africa, Dovima replied, "I should have charged double rate!" On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk … Read More […]

  17. What a majestic photo! I follow most top model shows and it is clear none of those contestants come close to this in their posing with elephants shoots. The grandeur and elegance speaks volumes about the talent of both model and photographer.

  18. […] Dovima (Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) was the model for which the term 'supermodel' was coined. Not only that, she perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, someone asked her what she thought of Africa. To which she replied, "Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt." When they explained that Egypt was in Africa, Dovima replied, "I should have charged double rate!" On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk … Read More […]

  19. I saw a documentary once where photographer Rankin reproduced Avedon’s iconic images using his own creative liberty, but what he created was admirable ofcourse- But nowhere close to Avedon. Avedon is God.

  20. Hello. Is it okay if I put your link to this page in my blog? It just so happens that I took a photo of my elephant necklace for my photo project today and I saw this entry in the freshly pressed.

  21. […] Dovima (Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) was the model for which the term 'supermodel' was coined. Not only that, she perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, someone asked her what she thought of Africa. To which she replied, "Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt." When they explained that Egypt was in Africa, Dovima replied, "I should have charged double rate!" On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk … Read More […]

  22. […] Dovima (Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) was the model for which the term 'supermodel' was coined. Not only that, she perpetuated that the notion of vacuous blondes. In Egypt, someone asked her what she thought of Africa. To which she replied, "Africa? Who said anything about Africa? This is Egypt." When they explained that Egypt was in Africa, Dovima replied, "I should have charged double rate!" On the same shoot, she brought along a large trunk … Read More […]

  23. An absolutely amazing shot, as you say perfect symmetry between the model and the elephants, the models poise and the tones all make these iconic pictures, thank you for sharing

  24. Lovely. I absolutely love this picture. And the story behind it lovely. Didn’t know that Yves Saint-Laurent was Christian Dior assistant once.

  25. The real name of Dovina is DIVINE!!!!!!!!!! What a model!!!!!!!Her presence is poetic.She is at the Pantheon of teh godesses of the XX century.

  26. Dovima did not end her life as a waitress. She was our seating hostess. While working at Cafe 66 at the iconic Pier 66 in Ft. Lauderdale in the 80’s, I was headhunted to go and wait tables at a new restaurant that was being opened by local restaurateur John Marks. His new restaurant Frankie and Johnny’s, on the 17th St. Causeway, was to be the height of glam chic and was pretty much an homage to all that was gaudy and glitzy about the 1980’s. Imagine an homage to the Great Gatsby as seen through the lens of a Miami Vice film crew. This pantheon of black shiny tile and even shinier gold and silver details was illuminated by hot pink and electric blue neon that wrapped around the ceiling of the entire space. Even the restrooms. The acoustics, due to all right angles and sleek shiny surfaces, was a complete nightmare. Conversations could be heard with complete clarity, word for word, from across the room yet the food order that the couple sitting at a table in front of you was giving was rendered inaudible. And God forbid, if a knife slid off a shiny lacquered table to the floor, the whole room would have to cover their ears and nearly double over in pain. Needless to say, Frankie and Johnny’s lasted just one season. Feeling badly for those that had given up their previous employment Mr. Marks offered us employment at his original, and still very successful restaurant, 5 Guys Pizzeria on North Federal Highway. Located just before the New River Tunnel.
    Upon arriving for my first day at work, I was greeted by a elegant and statuesque woman who introduced herself simply as Dovima. Knowing Avedon’s iconic photographs, but not it’s star’s name I never put the two together until one day after months of the rather jaded waitresses that worked there rolling their eyes at the very suggestion that this older woman that seated their tables could possibly have ever been somebody, anybody, Dovima brought into the pizzeria her portfolio. It was an epiphany. There, spread out before us were the masterworks of some of the most recognized representations of fashion photography that the world has ever known. This woman, who chain smoked filterless Pall Malls, and had the voice to prove it, had not aged all that well. It was apparent that her nights were most likely spent doing crossword puzzles or doodle art while the TV played Wheel Of Fortune and Moonlighting. All while making her way through quite a few ounces of gin. With the mouth of a sailor and a cackle that would turn heads, Dovima would seat each table as if she were showing our patrons to a private dining car on the Orient Express. Her joie de vivre would engulf you and the delight she found in children especially let me know that this was a woman who had big love for all, just probably not enough to have any left over for herself. I heard, years later, that Dovima had left this world alone and without any money but what she gave to me and everyone that was lucky enough to have been near her has enriched us all throughout our lives. She was the thing that legends are made of and as down to earth as a human could possibly be. There could not have been a more wonderful woman to become known as the world’s first super model. Viva Dovima.

    • I knew her as well from 1986-1990 when we lived in Lauderdale. Your comments are spot on and reflect pretty much the Dovima I also knew, with the exception of her looks. She was still a rather attractive woman at age 58. I visited her meager apartment on SE 14 Street where I was privy to the large trunk of magazines and photos that showcased her past. Her brother Stanley, who inherited the legacy, died two years ago. Now her personal effects are in the hands of her niece. I was able to purchase some historic family and Avedon photos from them. After a tragic life, interrupted by one good husband, she just never recovered when West died. She lost her will to live once he died and after she was diagnosed with cancer a few years later.

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  35. I think I’ve found Avedon’s inspiration for this photo. “In Sarasota, 1947” by Louise Dahl-Wolfe. She was a great photographer and took this photo about 8 years before Avedon made his brilliant portrait of Dovima. Dahl-Wolfe was also a Harper Bazaar’s staff photographer. She also freelanced for Vogue and Sports Illustrated. So I think assuming the probability of Avedon seeing Dahl-Wolfe’s image is not a far cry. I’m just excited over this finding! LOL (even though it might not be true)

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  57. Sad to see the chained elephants……….i see no beauty in the pictures……just abuse of animal back when and today it’s still going on…..Humans are the worse beast !!!!!

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  64. […] The search for the Quality Woman begins. Maggie sends her top photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) to photograph Marion, a nasally-voiced comic book enthusiast played by famous model Dovima, another Avedon regular. She’s the model from that notorious Avedon photograph with the elephants. […]

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