Richard Avedon Exhibit at Boston’s MFA – A Review
A couple weeks ago I visited the Richard Avedon exhibit at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts (MFA): Avedon Fashion 1944-2000, which ran from August 10, 2010 to January 17, 2011. It’s the first retrospective of his fashion work since 1978. A tip for those in the area: On Wednesdays, the entrance fee into the MFA is by donation, meaning you can get in for free…or for whatever you think is an appropriate donation amount.
Let me start off by saying that I’ve always like Richard Avedon. He’s famous for being a fashion photographer, but I feel like he was an artist who was lucky enough to have Harper’s Bazaar finance his models, clothing, lighting and travel. In that respect, he’s my hero!
With this in mind, I went into the exhibit with high hopes and looking forward to enjoying myself, and if you’re bored with this article already, I’ll let you know that I wasn’t disappointed. The exhibit was divided into sections, each for a different decade of Avedon’s career. There was plenty of space to step back and examine prints as a group, which the curators had clearly planned for given how similar themed images were placed adjacent to each other. This worked well, because many of Avedon’s photos aren’t particularly strong by themselves, but they become greater than their sum when seen as a whole. Nevertheless, I did enjoy stopping in front of some photos trying to work out the particulars of the lighting. I was accompanied by two fellow photographer friends and we all wondered whether Avedon had poses in mind or if he just turned the music on and let the models do what they wanted. Some of the extremely tight framing in certain photos seemed to suggest that, if there had been planning, it hadn’t extended to pointing the camera at the right spot!
One particular room was dark, with black walls, and the only light came from lights shining on the prints, one per photo. Very interesting approach, that had everyone wondering whether the photos popped because of the light, or whether they would have popped anyway. The lights had a small, hot central point that was pointed at a precise location in the print, so we suspect the “pop” was combination of Avedon’s artistry and that of the lighting designer. Great use of light by both parties in this case.
Speaking of lighting, one group of photos highlighted (ahem) Avedon’s love for backlighting his leading ladies. In some images this had the effect of making the subjects appear as if photoshopped into the background, but most of the time it worked to Avedon’s advantage, giving his lovely models a bright aura. Incidentally, all these photos were taken in ballrooms, bars, casinos and similar places, always seeking an image of glamour. Tuxedos and pearl necklaces abound.
One interesting section showed a set of test prints with comments written on them in pencil by Avedon himself. Some were instructions on how to reshoot the scene, while others indicated how to crop. I found one image of a couple leaving a night-life establishment particularly interesting: It had been shot in vertical format, including a lot of the building’s brick façade, so Avedon decided to cut most of the building out and make the image horizontal. This seems like a major cockup to me, not shooting the appropriate orientation in the first place, but it prove that Avedon was indeed human.
My favourite Avedon photo of all time is Dovima with the Elephants (learn more about Dovima). I was hoping the curators wouldn’t have dared leave that photo out, and boy did they not! In one of the last sections (the photo was taken in 1955) I found the print, and it was huge, by far the largest in the exhibit. I stood in front of it in silence, admiring those repeated curves, that elephant profile following the Dovima’s own contour… Seeing this print alone made the entrance fee worthwhile. To get an idea of its size, see this photo somebody took at another exhibit.
I should also mention that there were a few colour photos on display, but they lacked the impact of Avedon’s B&W work. How do I know this? Because I can’t remember even one of them, while I can remember many of the B&W prints I saw, even though it was the first time I was seeing them. And that’s all I’ve got to say about Avedon’s foray into colour.
In closing, I enjoyed the exhibit, as much for its quality and diversity, as for the effective placement of the prints by the curators, which in my view catalogued Avedon’s techniques and styles and allowed me to better appreciate what he was about as a photographer—a fake fashion photographer.
If this exhibit comes your way, don’t miss it!
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Tags: Boston, Exhibits, Museum of Fine Arts, Richard Avedon