The Family, 1976 | Richard Avedon

Early  in 1976, with both the post-Watergate political atmosphere and the approaching bicentennial celebration in mind, Rolling Stone asked Richard Avedon to cover the presidential primaries and the campaign trail. Avedon counter-proposed a grander idea — he had always wanted to photograph the men and women he believed to have constituted political, media and corporate elite of the United States.

For the next several months, Avedon traversed the country from migrant grape fields of California to NFL headquarters in Park Avenue and returned with an amazing portfolio of soldiers, spooks, potentates, and ambassadors that was too late for the bicentennial but published in Rolling Stone’s Oct. 21, 1976, just in time for the November elections.

Sixty-nine black-and-white portraits (seen all together in an Met exhibit here) were in Avedon’s signature style — formal, intimate, bold, and minimalistic. Appearing in them are President Ford and his three immediate successors — Carter, Reagan, and Bush. Other familiars of the American polity such as Kennedys and Rockefellers are here, and as are giants who held up the nation’s Fourth Pillar during that challenging decade: A. M. Rosenthal of the New York Times who decided to publish the Pentagon Papers, and Katharine Graham who led Woodward and Bernstein at Washington Post.

Their source, Deep Throat, is here too: W. Mark Felt, the former associate director of the FBI, although he didn’t reveal that fact until 2005 — the year after Avedon himself died. It is also clear here that apart from a few civil rights leaders and eminent wives, the pantheon of 1976 was mostly white, mostly male, mostly besuited, and mostly elderly. Yet, some familiar contemporary names amongst its younger members — the activist Ralph Nadar, 42; Jerry Brown, 38, then as now the governor of California; Donald Rumsfeld, 44, then and future Secretary of Defense — also suggest this group’s political endurance and Zeligian relevance.

Consciously or otherwise, absent were the supreme court justices and the man whose resignation made this portfolio possible. Instead, Avedon convinced Nixon’s secretary, Rose Mary Woods to pose for him.

If we assemble a project like this today, what will be its composition? There’ll definitely be more ‘celebrities’ I guess, but weigh-in here in comments or tweet to @aalholmes.

Elise Daniels with the Street Performers, Avedon

For all his subsequent role in elevating it to a sublime art form not withstanding, Richard Avedon was never comfortable with fashion photography. He wanted to be remembered as a great artist or portraitist, even if that involved playing down the half-century of fashion magazine work he did for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue as little more than a day job.

The above photo, Elise Daniels with the Street Performers, was one of his earlier works. Avedon interestingly fuses street photography with fashion in this photo, which shows he was influenced by the great Parisian street photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassai.

Whether you see the model or the contortionist first in the photo is perhaps debatable, but it is undeniable that this photo exists in the realm between the artificial and the everyday. Wearing a broad “picture” hat and a Balenciaga suit, Elise stands akimbo by a table comandeered as a stage by a contortionist while a weight lifter and a horn player do their things. Her beauty was as huge an aberration of nature as their freakishness to Avedon, who portrayed the model as an alien among aliens, ogled at by normal Parisians.

A rarely seen alternate shot (below) has two acrobats, one doing a handstand on the other’s hand, rounding out the group. I have posted this photo before on IP, but I saw the second photo in a dentistry recently and thought I should repost it.

Sunny Harnett

The photo was not really iconic, but one of my first exposures to glamor photography. It was one of a handful of photos that hanged on my mom’s office. The photo was taken for September, 1954 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, by one of the magazine’s major contributing photographers: Richard Avedon. Modelling for Avedon was Sunny Harnett, a prominent model of her day, wearing a dress by designer Madame Gres. After her modelling career, Ms. Harnett worked as an assistant to Eileen Ford of Ford Models. Confined to a home for the aged in her last years, she died in a fire there in 1987. She was 63.

The photo itself was taken in the casino at Le Touquet, a resort town known as Paris by the sea. Since the 1920s, when Noël Coward led the British “smart set” to the town, the wealthy have spent their short vacations and weekends in Le Touquet; the casino itself was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s eponymous casino at Royale-les-Eaux in Casino Royale.

The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution

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The Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) is a lineage-based membership organization of women, descended from the original founding fathers of the United States, from the signers of the Declaration of Independence to military veterans to privateers and refugees. Although it is frequently stated that DAR does not discriminate based on race or religion, and welcomes all women with a provable blood line to revolutionary ancestors, the organization was (not unfairly) accused of the elitism and class distinction–something the artist Grant Wood satirized in his 1932 painting. Even today, with their Washington connections and political clout, the DAR remains a powerful force, and the sole American organization that is vaguely reminiscent of the old world aristocracy.

In his picture, The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution taken at DAR Convention, Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C. on October 15, 1963, Richard Avedon captured this aloofness, snugness and elitism. Yet, their faces also reflected all the wars, all the soldiers, all the valor, all the glory, the sheer toughness. Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton and Franklin looked at us through these faces. 

Interesting Anecdote about photo.

Elise Daniels with Street Performers

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Avedon’s Portfolio: Start With Fashion, End with Art. From the New York Times. Friday. May 15 2009.

Richard Avedon took inspiration from great Paris street photographers like Cartier-Bresson and Brassai but used the model to set up an almost jarring tension between the artificial and the everyday. This is especially the case with the famous “Elise Daniels with Street Performers,” shot in Paris in 1948, with a decrepit Marais apartment building as backdrop. Wearing a broad “picture” hat and a Balenciaga suit, the model stands hands on hips by a table comandeered as a stage by a contortionist while a weight lifter and a horn player do their things. She is in many ways an alien among aliens, observed by clutch of normal Parisians. (In an alternate shot, included in the catalog, the table is bare, and two acrobats, one doing a handstand on the other’s hand, round out the group.)

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]