Norman Parkinson – “Parks” to his friends – was one of fashion photography’s great storytellers. Stories and fantasies were at the heart of both the man and his work.
Irving Penn described his pictures as “like remarkable stills from a film of an interesting life.” And towards the end of his life, talking about the Brighton Pavilion (his favourite building), Parks told The Observer magazine:
George IV was a great eccentric and an enthusiastic man, full of fantasy. If you are going to be an artist of any kind – even a photographer – you have to major in fantasy.”
Eccentric, enthusiastic and fantasy are all words that sit comfortably alongside the name Norman Parkinson.
Norman Parkinson – the man
He’s born Ronald William Parkinson Smith in 1913 in London. In 1934, age 21, he opens his own studio with fellow photographer Norman Kibblewhite, calling it Norman Parkinson – a combination of two of their given names. Kibblewhite leaves shortly afterwards and Ronald Smith becomes Norman Parkinson.
He cuts a striking figure. For starters, he’s over 6 feet 5 inches tall, which means he stands out from the crowd, literally, and has a bird’s eye view of his subjects. As if that’s not enough, he further draws attention to himself by the way he dresses. He recalls that back in the 1930s:
I had the mistaken idea around that time that I was a bit of an artist – an idea that I have attempted to dispel over the past forty years – and dressed even more outrageously than I do now. I affected sandals, rather a lot of leather and suede, and a mid-calf length cape affair, made from blood-red Harris tweed. … On my head I wore a peaked cap that Locks had made for me. Aware of my interest in fashion, when my father died he left me the hounds-tooth trousers that my grandfather was married in. A peculiar bequest you will rightly say, particularly if I mention that, for reasons known only to my grandfather, the moth had entirely devoured the crotch.
Norman Parkinson’s flamboyant dress sense evolves over time but never leaves him. For example, the Kashmiri wedding hat presented to him in 1957 by Sultan Wangnoo becomes the first in a long line of signature headgear. He is, as his tailor, Mr Wyser of Wyser & Bryant observes, “a man who wants to be noticed.” So, even across a crowded room, your attention is drawn to the commanding figure with a military-style moustache and eccentric get-up. You can’t help being intrigued. Who is this man? Is he a bit up himself? Is he worth getting to know or better stay clear?
The moment he opens his mouth, your doubts evaporate. He’s well spoken (not surprising, given he went to Westminster, a posh boys’ school), debonair, witty, charming… He comes across as an English gentleman through and through. Jerry Hall, one of the models he “discovers,” reckons he hams up his Englishness but… “In fashion no one cares about the truth as long as it’s a good story. Everyone just wanted things to be fun and exotic.” That suits Parks just fine.
He’s been a photographer ever since he left school, though during the 1940s he’s had a go at combining it with being a gentleman farmer in Worcestershire in the West Midlands of England. He’s discovered that photography, and specifically photographing beautiful women, is his calling, and there are limited opportunities for that on or even from a farm.
Not to be deterred, once he’s established himself as a leader in his field and feels secure personally and professionally, he makes his home in Tobago. There he farms pigs and creates the Porkinson Banger – served on Concorde and marketed as the world’s first supersonic sausage. To get to work as a photographer, all he has to do is hop on a plane. No problem.
So what’s it like going on a shoot with him? Well, he’s quite a ladies’ man and he’s adept at weaving a spell to bewitch his models into entering his world of make-believe. No one is more aware of that than Wenda Rogerson, the subject of some of his most famous shots and the love of his life, whom he marries in 1951. Writing in Photographs by Norman Parkinson, the monograph that accompanied his 1981 one-man show at the National Portrait Gallery, she observes that:
Every sitting – however seemingly mundane – is capable of holding within it the magic he is always striving to find. Brought up in an age when fairy-tales were still read aloud to children by the warmth of the nursery gas fire, he has never lost his belief in magic. Indeed he talks about the existence of gremlins in his camera. The princes and princesses, the good and the bad fairy, appear, a little disguised, from the filed recesses of his imagination again and again.
And on another occasion:
Parks has got a little bit of hypnotism about him. Women will do anything for him and he loves their company, adores them…
If that sounds a bit airy fairy, his friends and colleagues are pretty much unanimous in remarking on his sense of humour – being around Norman Parkinson is a blast. For him taking pictures is a pleasure, not a stress. He also has a great sense of spontaneity and adventure. According to Jerry Hall:
Parks was up for anything – he was like a young person, even though he was quite aged – everything was a new discovery for him, which was exciting because you felt that you were collaborating, you felt free. I was so excited when I was working with him; I would go to bed thinking, what will I do tomorrow?
Finally, Parks is a great raconteur who comes up with stories that put his subjects at ease and help them understand what he wants to get across in his shoot. Jerry Hall again:
…there’d always be a story. I enjoy a story, too, and you’d always have to have it in your head. So when I was sitting on Marie Antoinette’s bed, it was all about it being a ghost of Versailles. He just had a way of making you feel very confident and alive and special. There was such a connection. I think part of what made his pictures so amazing was that he had an idea he’d worked out in his head, something slightly poetic, and he also had an intensity of focus and all the technical ability
Bottom line – Norman Parkinson is a highly skilled technician, whose art conceals art. He can create the most complex images with scarcely any apparent effort. He’s charming, entertaining and inspirational. He has a wonderful wit and imagination, a clear vision for each shoot, and a steely determination to go with it. In short, when he goes on an assignment, he knows what he wants and he knows exactly how to get it, come what may. There’s an iron fist inside that velvet glove.
Norman Parkinson – the photographer
Norman Parkinson’s career stretches over more than half a century in a field where novelty and originality are at a premium. That’s an extraordinary achievement. Here is a brief overview…
The 1930s. Norman Parkinson begins his career apprenticed to an old-fashioned portrait/court photographer. These are the days of the Season, when debutantes queue at the gates of Buckingham Palace to be presented to the King. Within a few years, Parks has his own studio and is working on commissions from Harper’s Bazaar. His remit is to emulate the work of Martin Munkacsi in the magazine’s US edition – to develop a more photo-journalistic style of fashion photography by shooting his subjects informally, in movement and outdoors. This in contrast to the prevailing style, as embodied by the likes of Cecil Beaton and George Hoyningen-Huene. He soon discovers this is his metier, on one occasion suggesting that:
A studio is like an operating theatre. You go there to get a part of yourself removed.
The 1940s and ’50s. During World War II, Norman Parkinson spends most of his time working on a farm in Worcestershire. He does take some photographs for the Ministry of Defence, for example of the Women’s Emergency Land Corps harvesting and fruit-picking for the war effort. Apparently, he is also employed by the Royal Air Force as a reconnaissance photographer. And he finds time to work on fashion assignments for Vogue (he jumps ship from Harper’s Bazaar), capturing his models in rural settings that evoke a nostalgia very much in keeping with the wartime mood.
After the War, the sense of poetry, romance and whimsey in his photographs finds a receptive audience in a nation sick of privation. His practice flourishes and through the fifties he makes yearly visits to New York at the behest of Alexander Lieberman, US Vogue’s art director. His sense of adventure also leads to him becoming one of the first fashion photographers to take advantage of jet travel and exotic locations.
The 1960s and ’70s. In 1960, Parks is recruited by Jocelyn Stevens, who has just acquired Queen and is in the process of transforming it into London’s avant-garde fashion magazine. He’s happy to let Parks off the leash in a way that his erstwhile employers at Vogue were not. With more freedom to push the boundaries and produce quirky and original work, Norman Parkinson is reinvigorated, only to return to Vogue in 1965. He continues to shoot editorials, working regularly with the French, Italian and US as well as the UK edition.
The 1980s. In 1978 Norman Parkinson leaves Vogue for the last time, this time to move to Town & Country magazine. The glitzy style of portrait photography he purveys is completely in tune with both the decade and his sitters’ and audience’s aspirations. And he carries on working until his death in 1990.
The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth?
That’s the official narrative, as Parks constructed it and as it appears, give or take, in most of the biographies and monographs. But Norman Parkinson is a slippery, elusive figure. It’s not easy to disentangle the facts from the fabrications he weaves around himself, particularly his past.
There are hints that what he reveals about himself may not be the whole story, that there may be another lurking under the surface. As ever, what’s not said is as interesting and potentially revealing as what is…
- Parks’ accounts of his childhood and growing up are vague and various. Is it simply that he decided at an early stage that in order to succeed as a photographer he needed to fabricate a more appropriate name and back story?
I didn’t see how anyone could make a business out of being a high-flying photographer with the name “Smith.”
- He barely mentions Norman Kibblewhite, another product of the Speaight studio, whose particular contribution to the partnership was his experience in film lighting. Who was he, why did the two men part ways and what became of him?
- How and to what extent did Norman Parkinson manage to avoid active service during World War II? There’s little evidence (at least that I’m aware of) for his assertion to an interviewer that:
I used to do quite a lot of ﬂying, doing reconnaissance, that sort of thing. Quite a lot of stuff I did ended up in magazines for the French resistance.
- His first two wives, Margaret Banks (whom he married in 1935) and Thelma Woolley (whom he married in 1942), are pretty much airbrushed out of his narrative – neither appeared in his memoir, Lifework, or in his entry in Who’s Who. What’s the story there? The 1939 Register (a survey carried out to ensure the Government had an accurate record of the population, mainly with a view to issuing ration books), lists Ronald W P Smith as a farm labourer living with Thelma G Wooley. We catch a glimpse of them bombing through country villages in a hilarious report in the 31 October 1939 edition of the Gloucestershire Echo of a court case at which Parks was found guilty of speeding. Margaret was aware of her husband’s infidelity. As reported in the 21 January 1941 edition of the Birmingham Daily Gazette, when she filed for divorce…
The wife’s case was that in June 1939 her husband made a confession of his feelings towards a woman who had sat for him as a model. He left home five days later and Mrs. Parkinson-Smith now alleged that he and the other woman had lived together at Bushley, near Tewkesbury.
- Was his marriage to Wenda as blissful as he paints it? The relationship clearly got off to a fabulous start with their collaborations and his adoption of her son by her previous marriage. But Parks clearly had an eye for the ladies and he would have had plenty of temptation and opportunities to get involved. So, was he as devoted and faithful to Wenda as he appears? After all, he had previous. And there are rumours that latterly she took to the bottle – that would hardly be surprising, given her husband’s long absences away from home. Was this cause or effect?
- Was he quite so laid-back as he would have us believe? Clearly he could be wonderfully engaging, marvellous company. But there are also reports that he was perfectly capable of throwing a strop and did so on various occasions. On one such, he used his teeth to rip apart some colour transparencies that John Parsons, Vogue‘s art director, preferred to the ones he had selected.
The closer you look, the more the narrative frays around the edges, begins to unravel. And the more the questions arise.
Parks – the English Avedon?
Norman Parkinson’s and Richard Avedon’s careers run alongside each other from the 1940s through the 1980s. Avedon, not someone given to lauding his peers, writes of Parks:
There are very few photographers who remember that photography can be an expression of man’s deepest creative instincts. You are among those who have never forgotten.
Parks and Avedon make for interesting comparison. Both have something to prove, but whereas Norman Parkinson is relaxed, Richard Avedon is uptight. And there’s no doubt that at first glance, the two men and their work seem to be poles apart:
- With a few exceptions, Norman Parkinson is content to focus his creative powers on fashion and portraiture (the latter beyond the scope of this piece). While Richard Avedon makes his reputation in fashion photography, he grows to look down on it as a way of financing the work he really cares about – work that reveals a dark world-view and raises serious social issues.
- In his portraits, Avedon relentlessly seeks out what he sees as the truth behind the outward appearance. Expect anything but flattery. The results can be devastating, not least for the sitter. Parks likes to show people at their best. His portraits are devoid of malice:
If you have the responsibility of using your lens to record people for history, do it well. Everybody can look a little handsome, a touch beautiful – record them that way. Don’t destroy them and make them look hideous for the sole purpose of inflating your own photographic ego.
- Avedon sees himself as an artist with a capital A. He’s determined to raise the status of photography. Contrast that with Parks’ attitude:
There’s an awful lot of guff talked about photography, isn’t there? I mean, you consciously downplay it all the time, is it an art or a craft or a trade? It’s a trade.
But there are also some striking similarities:
- Both become fixated by the opposite sex and observe them almost voyeuristically from a young age. Avedon grows up in a female household, surrounded by women. Towards the end of his life (in an unpublished manuscript in the Norman Parkinson Archive), Parks reveals that among his earliest memories are those of women glimpsed through a fence next to a mulberry tree in his grandfather’s garden. In almost Proustian fashion, he remembers watching the girls next door…
…with loose dresses and a minimum of underclothes, running fawnlike everywhere. In the summer dog days I could see them lying around on the lawn … the gurgling, throaty laughter. I had a spy-hole on the world, which has fuelled my inspiration to this day. I photographed the memory of those well-observed weekend girls.
- Avedon and Parks are both renowned for taking their models out of the studio and onto the streets and capturing them as if living their lives rather than posing as professional models.
- They both remain at the forefront of their art (or should that be trade?) for decades. Though Avedon is undoubtedly more of a trailblazer, Parks is never that far behind. He has a sixth sense of the zeitgeist and how he needs to evolve, chameleon-like, to keep up with changing times and fashions.
- They both combine editorial work with lucrative advertising assignments – Parks’ decision to make his home in Tobago is largely down to his desire to reduce the tax he has to pay on his advertising earnings. And they both move restlessly to and fro between magazines, notably Harper’s and Vogue, latterly forsaking those two for editors more in awe of them.
- One senses that both are insecure individuals (but, to be honest, insecurity pretty much comes with the territory). Avedon, with his turbulent childhood and problematic relationship with his father, comes across as the more angst-ridden. But Parks has a strong need to escape his boring, lower middle class background, to create a back-story for himself (a brand, if you like) in tune with his chosen line for work.
- Both men are inveterate storytellers, equally skilled with words and images and accomplished at bending the truth to suit their purposes. Norman Parkinson observes that “The best photographers are the biggest liars.” While in Something Personal, Norma Stevens recalls that:
Dick [Avedon] would sometimes make merry with the facts – he even joked that if he ever wrote an autobiography he would call it Here Lies Richard Avedon. He said, “There is no truth, no history – there is only the way in which the story is told.”
A final word on Norman Parkinson
The most perceptive and eloquent tribute I’ve come across is by Iman, one of Parks’ favourite models, writing in the introduction to Robin Muir’s monograph:
Capturing life – energy, mood and spirit – is a talent reserved for the world’s most gifted photographers. No matter how beautiful a person may be, their photograph won’t shine unless the maestro behind the lens communicates with them, teases them, emotes with them. Photography is a collaborative process – like a dance – and Norman Parkinson was like Fred Astaire.
Want to know more about Norman Parkinson?
There are many excellent Norman Parkinson monographs, including:
- Sisters Under the Skin by Norman Parkinson
- Would You Let Your Daughter by Norman Parkinson
- Photographs by Norman Parkinson by Terence Pepper
- Lifework by Norman Parkinson
- Parkinson: Photographs 1935-1990 by Martin Harrison
- Norman Parkinson by David Wootton, with an essay by Robin Muir
- Norman Parkinson: A Very British Glamour by Louise Baring
- Norman Parkinson: Portraits in Fashion by Robin Muir.
Online, you can find the Norman Parkinson Archive at Iconic Images. There are also various articles. Norman Parkinson: the photographer who made fashion glam by Lucy Davies in The Telegraph is a good starting point. And there’s a great interview in which Jerry Hall talks to Nicola Roberts about her memories of Parks in Norman Parkinson: legend behind a lens in the FT. Or you can watch Parks being interviewed by Mavis Nicholson in 1977.
Other topics you may be interested in…
In June 1950, four of the US’s top models flew to Australia to showcase American fashions in Adelaide, Melbourne and Sydney. They included Carmen Dell’Orefice, just 18 years old but already something of a veteran, and Andrea Johnson, ten years her senior, for whom this would be a kind of swan song.
Carmen has become a fashion legend, Andrea has sunk without trace. Other than a few photos, there’s almost nothing about her on the Internet. So, this is my best effort to provide a back story for the clutch of photos of Andrea I have in my collection and ensure that she isn’t forgotten just yet. They come, via two different sources, direct from Andrea’s estate.
Andrea Johnson, supermodel
Back in the 1940s when Andrea Johnson does most of her modelling (she was born in 1922), the business is in its infancy and dominated by a handful of agencies. Andrea works for two of them. She is represented by John Robert Powers before moving to Ford Models, set up by Eileen and future-US president Gerald Ford in 1946. At some point in the 1940s she leaves to set up her own agency, Figure Heads, with offices in NYC at 141 East 40th Street. Her husband, Claude Travers, five years her senior, is a partner and director of the firm.
During the forties, Andrea is one of the 12 most photographed models in the US immortalized by Irving Penn in his famous 1947 group portrait. The following year she’s part of another famous group portrait, this time modelling an extravagant ballgown by Charles James for Cecil Beaton. Beaton also photographs her for the covers of two issues of Vogue magazine – January 1, 1945 and May 15, 1946 (you can find both at Getty Images). It goes almost without saying that, like Lisa Fonssagrives and unlike Jinx Falkenburg, Andrea is a high-fashion rather than a sports model.
Her modelling date books reveal that she works with pretty much all the leading fashion photographers of the era: Richard Avedon, Erwin Blumenfeld, Louise Dahl-Wolfe, Fernand Fonssagrives, Paul Hesse, Horst P Horst, George Hoyningen-Huene, Constantin Joffé, Karen Radkai, John Rawlings and, intriguingly, Salvador Dali. Magazines commissioning the shoots include Harper’s Bazaar, House & Garden, LIFE, Town & Country and Vogue.
The Australian fashion tour
In the mid-20th century, models aren’t celebrities like they are now. But there is still interest in them, as this article in LIFE magazine, in which Andrea Johnson gets a mention, demonstrates. While Andrea goes pretty much under the radar in the US, she and her companions get plenty of coverage in the Australian press when they visit the country in July 1950.
The American Fashion Parades, as they are dubbed, are organized by Nieman-Marcus in collaboration with the Myer Emporium and David Jones (two Australian upmarket department stores). The rationale is to promote US fashion in the light of moves afoot to reduce the trade barriers that have inhibited commerce between the countries since before World War II. It calls to mind The Fashion Flight of 1947. Vice-president Stanley Marcus regards the American Fashion Parades as one of the most important his corporation has staged and points out that:
We’ve had two fashion shows in Mexico, but I can tell you this – we attach more importance to this show than any we have ever held. … French fashions still may be the world’s most chic, but American fashions generally are better suited to Australia.
The American Fashion Parades showcase the latest American creations in cocktail dresses, evening gowns, suits, sportswear and beachwear. Also on display are a range of accessories: hats, shoes, gloves, handbags and costume jewellery for evening, daytime, and sportswear. Brands include Elizabeth Arden, Hattie Carnegie, Adrian, Tina Leser, Irene, John Frederics and Delman.
This is how the models are introduced to the Australian public in the June 3, 1950 edition of The Daily Telegraph:
They are known as the “most-photographed girls in the world.” …
… Blonde, svelte Carmen [Dell’Orefice] is the favorite model of British photographer Cecil Beaton, who has described her as “the most beautiful woman in the world.” She holds several New York swimming and diving championships.
Pert brunette Margo [Price], besides being one of the highest-paid models in New York, is a skilled movie photographer. She plans to make a film “documentary” of her Australian tour for television showing on her return to the United States.
Striking, shapely Andrea Johnson disproves the saying that blondes are beautiful but dumb. She’s one of the most sought-after mannequins in America and in her spare time she runs her own model agency with 30 girls on her staff.
Glamor girl and fashion expert Ruth Hancock, of Texas, will be in charge of the American beauty contingent.
The Australian press report that they are taking a cut in their earnings during the trip. Back home they command fees of US $25 dollars an hour and average US $100 dollars a day.
The models are in Australia for a bit more than a month. During that time, they work alongside eight Australian mannequins, who have competed for the honour. Their schedule looks like this:
- Monday, 17 July – Leave New York.
- Wednesday, 19 July – Full-dress preview in Dallas, then on to San Francisco to catch a PanAm flight to Australia.
- Saturday, 22 July – Arrive Sydney and travel on to Melbourne.
- Saturday 29 July – Fashion Parades begin in Melbourne.
- Saturday 12 August – Fashion Parades begin in Adelaide.
- Monday 21 August – Fashion Parades begin in Sydney.
- Saturday 26 August – Fashion Parades finish.
When the models depart, Margo and Ruth head back to the US, while Andrea and Carmen go to France for sittings for Vogue Paris before returning home.
Andrea Johnson, artist and entrepreneur
On the way to Australia, the models have a brief stopover in Honolulu, and perhaps that’s when Andrea falls in love with the city. At any rate, that’s where she goes to live when she retires from modelling in the early 1950s. And there she embarks on a new career, working closely with another artist to design fabric prints on which to base a line of island casuals, and funding it with a bit of modelling.
It seems that Andrea is quite an entrepreneur. Having set up a modelling agency and a fashion business, she goes on holiday to Big Island and ends up buying an old coffee farm in the area of Honaunau. She turns the ground floor of the house into a ceramics studio, which she christens Holualoa Coffee Mill Art Center. The remaining space she uses as storage for her extensive collection of antiques and collectibles. She also opens a retail studio in Captain Cook, selling plaster castings for walls and gardens.
She dies in her late 70s after a battle with cancer.
Want to know more about Andrea Johnson?
I’m indebted to John-Michael O’Sullivan (who is working on a biography of Barbara Mullen) and Cynthia Nespor (who helped to dispose of Andrea’s estate) for their help in researching this piece. The best source online is the National Library of Australia’s Trove, where you will find multiple reports of the American Fashion Parades.
Other topics you may be interested in…
Hedy Lamarr had it all: beauty, brains, fame and fortune. For a few years she had the world, or at least Tinseltown, at her feet. And she blew it. So what went wrong? Was Hedy the victim of forces beyond her control or of her own character flaws. Or was she just plain unlucky?
Hedy Lamarr arrives in Hollywood in October 1937. She has just fled Vienna, her husband Fritz Mandl, and the looming threat of a Nazi invasion. Taking the train to Paris and then crossing the Channel to England, she has discovered that Louis B Mayer, MGM’s head honcho, is in London and looking for talent. Somehow, she manages to arrange a meeting with him. He’s worried about the scandal surrounding her appearance in Ecstasy but not blind to her charms (how could he be?). So he offers Hedy a bulk-standard, six-month contract with MGM at $125 a week. Which she flatly rejects. She’s has her own idea of what she’s worth and she’s not going to be pushed around.
Still, Hedy is in a pretty desperate situation and, after a meeting with Robert Ritchie, one of Mayer’s talent scouts, she changes her mind. But then it turns out that the mogul is leaving the next day for France in order to catch the superliner Normandie back to the US. Getting a berth requires the sale of most of her jewels as well as some subterfuge (the voyage is already fully booked). On board, Hedy, in a gown by Alix, dazzles her fellow passengers, and the effect is not lost on Mayer, who ups his offer to a seven-year contract beginning at $550 a week.
So by the time Hedy Lamarr arrives in Hollywood (her name changed by MGM from Hedwig Kiesler to Hedy Lamarr), she has proved that she is daring, ambitious, determined and resourceful. Those are qualities she is going to need in spades. But that’s far from the whole story. Ever since she was a little girl, she’s wanted to be an actress in spite of being, by all accounts, a very private person. Is that because acting can be a form of escapism for her and, if so, what demons is she struggling with? Well, for one thing she believes that her mother wanted a boy and didn’t really like her. Then, married at age 19 and dominated by her husband Fritz Mandl, she likely feels she needs to take back control of her life.
Now, put yourself in her shoes for a minute. She’s 23 years old. She’s in a strange city with a culture very different from that in which she’s grown up. She can speak only a few phrases of English so she struggles to communicate with those around her. And she knows no-one. Columnist Sheilah Graham, out on the town at the Beverly Hills Brown Derby one Saturday evening that winter, spots Hedy at a table all by herself. Her partner, F Scott Fitzgerald, wryly observes: “How typical of Hollywood, the most beautiful girl in the world alone on a Saturday night.”
Hedy Lamarr – beauty
And beauty is a recurring theme, the dominant theme, when it comes to Hedy Lamarr. Jet-black tresses, cherry-red lips, porcelain complexion… Hedy’s looks are classic and exotic, innocent and alluring, making her the perfect model for two very different movie legends: Disney’s Snow White on the one hand and, on the other, Catwoman in the original Batman comics.
What immediately strikes you when you look at Hedy in her movies or her stills is just how staggeringly beautiful she is – drop-dead gorgeous. And a different kind of beauty from the blondes who have been fashionable through the thirties, a fact that’s not lost on her audiences or the other Hollywood actresses.
In Those Glorious Glamour Years: Classic Hollywood Costume Design of the 1930s, Margaret J. Bailey, a historian of film costume, observes:
After her ﬁrst appearance on the screen in Algiers, drugstores experienced a run on hair dyes, and soon everybody, including starlets and established luminaries like Crawford and Joan Bennett, had changed their locks from blonde or brown to jet black. The Lamarr hairdo with the part in the middle and the tall Lamarr look became the new standard of glamour. Shock waves were felt not only in personal beauty, but also in the realm of fashion, in particularly, the hat. Somehow that three letter word seems inadequate when describing what Lamarr wore in her ﬁrst ﬁlms. Lamarr veils, snoods, turbans, and such swept the fashion world and millinery companies would overnight ﬁll the hunger for the new cinema image. Not everyone could affect the Lamarr styles, but just about everyone tried. Turbans and snoods became the fashion for Forties headgear.
Suddenly, Hedy’s image is everywhere. Overnight she becomes a star. In December 1938 she is named Glamour Girl of 1938 by the popular press. Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper describes Hedy as “orchidaceous.”
There’s no doubt that she looks gorgeous in stills. In fact, David O Selznick, producer of Gone with the Wind, refers in a memo to Hedy as having “actually been established [as a Hollywood star] purely by photography.” And yet, the photographers themselves are less than enthusiastic. Hungarian lensman Laszlo Willinger, who has photographed Hedy in Vienna as well as in Hollywood, complains to John Kobal:
How do you make Hedy Lamarr sexy? She has nothing to give. It wasn’t as simple as showing legs or cleavage. She was not very adept at posing. She was just… She felt if she sat there, that was enough. You try to bring it to some life by changing the lighting, moving in closer to the head, whatever, because nothing changed her face. It never occurred to me that one could wake her up… and nobody ever did.
Then there’s Virgil Apger, another MGM snapper who remembers:
She thought she knew it all and was forever telling you what to do. She was beautiful – she had great skin texture – but I don’t recall anybody saying they enjoyed shooting her. She never came alive, except to keep making damned uncouth remarks to the people I had around me.
Legendary photographer George Hurrell feels much the same way, having ﬁrst photographed Hedy soon after her arrival in Hollywood. He tells John Kobal:
I didn’t get too much out of Hedy because she was so static. Stunning. But it was the nature of her, she was so phlegmatic, she didn’t project anything. It was just a mood thing. And she had just one style. It didn’t vary particularly. She had a pretty good body. But she wouldn’t dress for it. She was always dressing in black. She liked suits. You can’t do anything – a woman in a suit is a dead duck.
Some clues there to what Hedy is like and why her career will crash and burn. But on a more positive note, when Clarence Sinclair Bull, head of MGM’s stills studio, visits Hedy to take some shots of her at home, she prepares lunch for him herself. “This is the ﬁrst time a star’s ever done this for me,” he remarks. “Oh, I always ﬁx my lunch by the kitchen sink when I’m alone. It’s easier,” says Hedy (Hedda Hopper’s Hollywood, Los Angeles Times, October 13, 1941).
Hedy is a looker and knows how to turn it to her advantage. According to June Allyson, “No doubt about it, she was stunning and she knew how to look at a man with an intimate little smile that turned him on.” Men are drawn to her like bees to honey, and people are so blinded by her beauty that they struggle to see beyond it. The default response seems to be that she’s just decorative, should stick to being an ornament, should not get involved in “real” acting. Bosley Crowther, notorious critic of The New York Times, is typical in his review of Lady of the Tropics, admittedly a lousy movie:
Now that she has inadvisedly been given an opportunity to act, it is necessary to report that she is essentially one of those museum pieces, like the Mona Lisa, who were more beautiful in repose.
But Hedy Lamarr can act. She may not have the dramatic prowess of a Bette Davis or a Barbara Stanwyck, but watch her in The Strange Woman and you’ll see a subtle and nuanced performance that brings to life Jenny’s (her character’s) ambiguity. What’s more, it seems there is more to Hedy Lamarr than just a perfect face.
Hedy Lamarr – brains
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hedy Lamarr, and it would certainly have baffled Bosley Crowther, is that her name is on the patent for a technology which would pave the way for both cellular networks and Bluetooth. Hedy, it turns out, is a smart cookie.
Perhaps the most astonishing thing about Hedy Lamarr, and it would certainly have baffled Bosley Crowther, is that her name (as Hedy Kiesler Markey) appears on the patent for a technology which will pave the way for both cellular networks and Bluetooth. So what’s going on here?
One day in 1940, dress designer, Adrian, one of Hedy’s closest friends, asks her along for dinner. Also there is the multi-talented George Antheil, not just the self-styled Bad Boy of American music (and partner in crime of Orson Welles for The Lady from Shanghai) but also something of an expert on endocrinology – he’s published three books about glands. Hedy’s interest is in finding out about the possibility of breast enlargement – something that Louis B Mayer has suggested to her. Antheil assures her that that would not be a problem. According to his autobiography, at the end of the evening, Hedy leaves before him and uses her lipstick to scrawl her phone number on his car window.
That’s not an invitation to be taken lightly. So he invites her round to his place for dinner and discussion. Fascinating as Hedy’s breasts undoubtedly are, the conversation does eventually move on to the prospect of the US entering the war in Europe. Hedy feels she should be doing something to help the Allies. She is also convinced she has something to offer in that regard because she used to eavesdrop on Fritz Mandl’s (her munitions manufacturer ex-husband) discussions about weapons technology.
She said she knew a good deal about new munitions and various secret weapons, some of which she had invented herself, and that she was thinking seriously of quitting M.G.M. and going to Washington, D.C., to offer her services to the newly established Inventors’ Council.
The challenge they set themselves is to find a way to stop the Germans from jamming the signals controlling the radio-guided torpedoes fired at their U-boats, which are playing havoc with the British shipping trying to cross the Atlantic. The solution the pair come up with is a radio-directed torpedo based on a transmitter and receiver, programmed to shift continually and at random through 88 different frequencies. The programming is done by paper tape inspired by the paper-rolls Antheil has used to synchronise player pianos. This is the invention they submit to the government for a US patent under the title of Secret Communication System.
The invention is covered in the October 1 1941 edition of The New York Times:
HEDY LAMARR – Actress Devises ‘Red-Hot’ Apparatus for Use in Defense
So vital is her discovery to national defense that government officials will not allow publication of its details. Colonel L. B. Lent, chief engineer of the National Inventors Council, classed Miss Lamarr’s invention as in the ‘red-hot’ category. The only inkling of what it might be was the announcement that it was related to remote control of apparatus employed in warfare.
When their patent application is approved in August 1942, Hedy and Antheil offer it to the US government. But the powers-that-be just sit on it, regarding the device as too unwieldy. They are more interested in having Hedy do some tours to sell war bonds. She accepts the invitation and throws herself wholeheartedly behind the initiative.
All the ships dispatched to defend the US during the Cuban Missile Crisis will be equipped with frequency-hopping technology (the paper rolls replaced by electronic circuitry) to secure their communications. But the technology itself will remain a secret until it is declassified in 1981. By the time its commercial potential is realized, the patent will have expired and others will profit hugely from it. It will not be until 1997 that Hedy and Antheil (by this time deceased) will be officially recognized for their invention and receive the sixth annual Electronic Frontier Foundation’s Pioneer Award. Hedy will be inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame posthumously in 2014.
Is the idea behind spread spectrum a one-off for Hedy? It’s difficult to know. There’s a story about her at age five taking apart and reassembling a music box. Antheil is certainly impressed by her inquisitiveness and ingenuity. And in interviews towards the end of her life she talks about how, while she was dating Howard Hughes, she designed a new wing shape to make his planes more aerodynamic. That’s about the size of it. Whatever her credentials as an inventor, though, Hedy Lamarr is no airhead. When she leaves MGM in 1945, she partners with Jack Chertok, producer of The Conspirators (one of her 1942 movies) to set up Mars Productions, a production company. She goes on to produce The Strange Woman (1946 – arguably the showcase for her finest performance) and Dishonored Lady (1947) as well as attempting to make further movies in Italy. She amasses a considerable art collection that includes works by the likes of Modigliani, Chagall, Rodin, Dufy, Vlaminck, Rouault, Utrillo and Renoir. And late in life she proves herself to be quite an astute investor so that when she dies in 2000, she leaves behind an estate worth $3.3 million – mainly shares.
Hedy Lamarr – bad judgment
Unfortunately, intelligence doesn’t necessarily translate into good judgment, let alone wisdom. Hedy is not afraid to make decisions and in too many cases she opts for the wrong course of action. This is the case with regard to both her professional and her private life. With the benefit of hindsight, Hedy will admit that she had poor taste both in scripts and in husbands. It’s difficult to argue with that.
Let’s start with her career. The movies in which an actor or actress appears can make or break their career. When she arrives in Hollywood, Hedy realizes that the place is full of wannabees looking for roles, that her contract makes no guarantees and that if she’s to be successful she has to engineer an opening.
She’s fortunate to run into Charles Boyer at a party; it is thanks to him that she gets a starring role in Algiers, her first and breakthrough Hollywood movie. She’s unfortunate that even after she makes headlines, her employers, Louis B Mayer and MGM, have pretty much no idea how to use her. They do a great job of building her image through a stream of glamorous stills. But the films in which they cast her range from second-rate to downright bad.
Worst of all, in 1942 Mayer turns down Warner Bros when they come calling, refusing to loan Hedy out to star opposite Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca. Instead, she ends up in the toe-curling White Cargo. Two years later, Hedy has opportunities to star in Laura and Gaslight. She rejects both of them (Gene Tierney and Ingrid Bergman say hi!). Had she appeared in just one of that trio of films, how different might her career trajectory have been and how differently might she be remembered? As it is, how many Hedy Lamarr movies can you remember off the top of your head? None, right?
Relatively early in her career, a certain litigiousness starts to characterize Hedy’s affairs. In 1943, she sues Loew’s and MGM for failing to pay her the $2,000 a week stipulated in her contract. They claim that the reason for this is a wartime executive order, issued by President Roosevelt, limiting salaries to $25,000 a year. The case is settled out of court. But as time goes by, it does seem as if Hedy is rather too keen on litigation, and this tendency will dog her for pretty much the rest of her life because all too often courts will fail to find in her favour.
More often than not, Hedy’s litigation has to do with money. Hedy’s attitude to it is ambiguous. On the one hand, money matters to her and she worries about not having enough of it. On the other, she spends lavishly, which for a time she can afford to do. She gets into the habit of living in the best homes with the finest furnishings, amassing an amazing art collection, and travelling whenever and wherever she wants.
After she leaves MGM in late summer 1945, she sets up her own production company, Mars Productions, in partnership with Jack Chertok, producer of her 1944 film, The Conspirators. They manage to find financial backing from producer, Howard Stromberg and their first film, The Strange Woman, is a bit of a triumph even though Hedy doesn’t get on with chosen director Edgar Ulmer. But their second movie, Dishonored Lady, is a turkey.
Hedy’s career is brought back from the brink by her appearance in Cecil B DeMille’s outrageous biblical epic Samson and Delilah (1949), the highest grossing movie of the decade. But she falls out with Paramount by refusing to help promote the film unless paid top dollar to do so.
Soon she is sinking her fortune into her own productions, taking advantage of the facilities offered by Rome. She’s well out of her depth, her projects end in failure and she runs out of road. She’s over-reached herself – spent too much money, fallen out with too many people (she’s acquired a reputation for being difficult to work with), burnt too many bridges.
In her autobiography she summarizes her attitude to money:
I figured out that I had made—and spent—some $30 million. … I advise everybody not to save; spend your money. Most people save all their lives and give it to somebody else. Money is to be enjoyed.
Hedy Lamarr’s private life is messy and sad. She is married and divorced six times: to munitions magnate Fritz Mandl: screenwriter Gene Markey; actor John Loder; nightclub owner Ernest Stauffer; oil millionaire W Howard Lee; and lawyer Lewis W Boies Jr. None of her marriages last more than six years and she doesn’t always maximize what she could get from her divorce settlements. Meanwhile, she has many affairs. Sadly, such turmoil is not unusual for attractive women trying to make careers in Hollywood.
By the mid-1960s, Hedy struggles to pay her utility bills and doesn’t always know where her next meal is coming from. Her ghost-written, sexed-up autobiography, Ecstasy and Me, published in 1966, is a pretty desperate attempt to raise some much-needed money. But she’s horrified when she reads it and (surprise, surprise!) contests its accuracy in court. Much of the content is indeed dubious and sensational.
She reaches her nadir when she is arrested for shoplifting in 1966 and again in 1991. She is fortunate to get away with it on both occasions.
Hedy Lamarr – what to make of her?
Let’s be clear from the outset. Hedy Lamarr is no angel. She has quite a temper and can be difficult to live with – John Loder, her third husband, should know. And as she establishes herself as a star, she gains a reputation (dubious at first but increasingly credible) as a real prima donna.
But it would be unfair to see her as just a spoiled diva who gets what’s coming to her. There are certainly some extenuating factors. Let’s start with her looks. Reflecting on her life, Hedy would suggest that:
My face has been my misfortune. It has attracted six unsuccessful marriage partners. It has attracted all the wrong people into my boudoir My face is a mask I can’t remove. I must live with it. I curse it.
She embodies the fate of so many beautiful women drawn to Hollywood, preyed upon and spat out. And it’s worth adding that, as Richard Avedon observed, beauty can be isolating. Hedy is undoubtedly lonely in the US and it’s easy to imagine that her looks and her shyness being a fatal combination for her. In 1952, actor Farley Granger attended a private party at which he recalled seeing Hedy:
She was very shy, very quiet, and very retiring. She just kind of receded almost into the woodwork. She kept very much to herself, you know.
Indeed, what comes through as you read Hedy Lamarr’s biographies and interviews with those who knew her is that she is a very private person. So, while acting may provide a channel for the more extrovert side of her personality, perhaps it turns out not to be the ideal career for her. In Hedy Lamarr Reveals She’ll Retire from Films in the January 24 1951 edition of the Los Angeles Examiner, gossip columnist Louella Parsons quotes a letter:
To straighten out all various statements about my retiring from the screen I want you to know it is true for the simple reason that I would like the privilege of a private life. As for marriage it is the normal desire of any woman, when I find the man I love enough to be my husband and father of my children.
Fond love to you,
By the late-1940s if not before, perhaps because of the mounting pressure and expectations, Hedy’s mind seems to be in a fragile state. Again, her public confidante is Louella Parsons, who reveals in The Strange Case of Hedy Lamarr (Photoplay, September, 1947) that, “with all the things in her past, and all she still holds of the material things of life, Hedy has been dangerously close to a nervous breakdown for the past year and she is still far from well.”
Her former co-star, John Fraser, paints a harrowing picture of Hedy’s mental decline in an email to Stephen Shearer:
In 1952 Hedy was neurotic and completely unable to communicate socially. In company, she was unaware of anyone but herself. Her need to be the centre of attention meant that whenever she appeared in public, she launched into a meaningless monologue. She was accompanied by her PA, Frankie Dawson and sometimes by her psychiatrist, who wasn’t doing her much good.
From around the mid-1950s to the early-1970s, Hedy is treated by New York physician Max Jacobson, nicknamed “Miracle Max” and “Dr Feelgood.” He has arrived in New York from Berlin in 1936 and his practice attracts the rich and famous including an impressive roster of Hollywood movie celebrities – Lauren Bacall, Ingrid Bergman, Humphrey Bogart, Yul Brynner, Montgomery Clift, Cecil B DeMille, Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Marilyn Monroe, David O Selznick, Elizabeth Taylor and Billy Wilder. According to Wikipedia, Jacobson is known for his “miracle tissue regenerator” shots, which consist of amphetamines, animal hormones, bone marrow, enzymes, human placenta, painkillers, steroids, and multivitamins.
Add to such a lethal cocktail of drugs the shock Hedy suffers when, in December 1958, her 11-year-old son, Anthony, out riding his bike, is hit by a car and seriously injured, and her erratic behaviour is hardly surprising. To compound matters, as her looks fade in the 1960s she undergoes some pretty disastrous cosmetic surgery that leaves her reluctant to show her face in public.
The last word on Hedy Lamarr goes to John Fraser:
She had been fawned upon, indulged and exploited ever since she had reached the age of puberty. Her extraordinary intelligence did not encompass wisdom. How could she have learnt about the values that matter, about kindness and acceptance and laughter, in the Dream Factory that is Hollywood? She had been thrust into the limelight at a pitilessly early age, been devoured by rapacious lovers and producers who saw her ravishing beauty as a ticket to success, and who looked elsewhere when she began to grow older. Beauty and money in moderation are undoubtedly a blessing. In excess, they are surely a curse.
Want to know more about Hedy Lamarr?
The two main sources for this piece are Hedy’s autobiography Ecstasy and Me (to be read with a large pinch of salt) and Stephen Michael Shearer’s Beautiful: The Life of Hedy Lamarr. Other titles are available at Amazon and elsewehere. Alexandra Dean’s documentary film, Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story, provides an overview of her life, shining a spotlight on her prowess as an inventor.
Other topics you may be interested in…
Richard Avedon was one of the all-time-great fashion photographers. For decades after his emergence onto the scene in 1946, he was a dominant influence on the industry thanks to the energy, imagination and willingness to take risks that he brought to his work.
Fashion was where Avedon made his name. It was also his undoing – at least in his own mind. He came to regard it as “merely” commercial, whereas what he really wanted was to be, and be seen as, a serious artist. So he turned his attention to portraiture, using fashion commissions to fund his endeavours.
But such was Avedon’s reputation in the field of fashion that despite all his efforts it continued to dominate his image for most of his career.
Avedon – fashion and portraiture, two sides of a coin
At first sight, Avedon’s portraits seem to be the polar opposite of his fashion work. A distinguishing characteristic of a typical Avedon fashion shot is its energetic high spirits. By contrast, what distinguishes many Avedon portraits is the bleak, unflinching, often inquisitorial dissection of his subjects’ vulnerabilities. His portraits are rarely kind, let alone flattering. More than occasionally, they shock his subjects.
But look more closely and you’ll discover a dark seam of existential angst running through Avedon’s fashion work too. He’s all too aware that beauty can be isolating and that it fades. You can see that in the expression of Dorian Leigh as she looks at herself in the mirror in a photo taken in 1949 at the beginning of Avedon’s career. Pathos is more to the fore in his 1955 shot of Dovima with Émilien Boulione and a clown. But nowhere is his existential angst more explicit than in In Memory of The Late Mr and Mrs Comfort, a harrowing editorial for the November 6, 1995 issue of The New Yorker.
In an interview quoted in Avedon Fashion 1944–2000, he traces the underlying anxiety in his fashion work back to his experience as a boy growing up in a home dominated by women:
I watched the way in which they prepared themselves to go out, what clothes meant, what makeup meant, what hair meant, what men meant. That anxiety was a very important thing that I tried to work into the magazines. And very often they [the photos] were rejected.
Avedon – the great storyteller
Another common denominator between Avedon’s fashion and portrait studies is drama and stories. Throughout his life, he never passes up an opportunity to go to the theatre, the ballet and the movies. He’s also an avid reader. All this helps to provide inspiration and fuel his own creativity
The stories are most evident in his fashion editorials, especially the iconic series of images he creates for Harper’s Bazaar to showcase the Paris collections, and which in the process help transform the image of the city after World War II. In A Woman Entering a Taxi in the Rain, an article published in the November 8, 1958 issue of The New Yorker, Winthrop Sargeant remarks:
His leading lady must always be involved in a drama of some sort, and if fate fails to provide a real one, Avedon thinks one up. He often creates in his mind an entire scenario suggested by a model’s appearance. She may be a waif lost in a big and sinful city, or a titled lady pursued in Hispano-Suizas by gentlemen flourishing emeralds, or an inconsolably bored woman of the world whose heart can no longer be touched – and so on. Avedon models play scene after scene from these scripts, and sometimes helps out by actually living an extra scene or two. The result is extraordinary for its realism – not the kind of realism found in most photography but the kind found in the theatre.
The mood of those shots might feel improvised, but the shoots themselves are far from spontaneous. They take a great deal of preparation: research into locations, sketches of proposed shots and test photos. On the day, Avedon coaxes and cajoles his models into the personas and poses he has in mind, chatting to them, joking with them and, crucially, telling them the stories he wants them to act out. He’s a bundle of energy, enthusiasm and inspiration and he won’t take no for an answer.
Hiro, once upon a time an assistant of Avedon, says:
Dick was the most brilliant of all the flashes that illuminated my professional path. His impatience was an inspiration in itself. The preparation he made for each sitting, the perfectionism – sharp, like a scalpel. And then the way he directed. His personality, which helped him clinch every shot. His timing. This man created the modern woman – the Avedon Woman.
In Avedon’s portraits, the drama is in the eyes, faces and expressions of his sitters, usually accentuated by ascetic, plain white backgrounds. More often than not the drama is dark, and not just by coincidence. Before the shoot, Avedon researches his subject and forms a view of what he wants his portrait to convey. And he seems inexorably drawn to his sitter’s vulnerabilities and failings – the skull beneath the skin.
He’s fond of telling a story of how he took his celebrated photo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The challenge: find a way of getting them to drop their guard – the happy, smiling “Ladies Home Journal cover faces” they would present for their portrait in contrast to the expressions he’s seen as he stalked them at the casino. He wants his portrait to reveal their “loss of humanity.” When he turns up at their NYC apartment for the shoot, he notices their pug dogs, which they adore. So he sets everything up, gets the couple into position and says, “If I seem a little hesitant, a little disturbed, it’s because my taxi ran over a dog.” Both of their faces drop, he clicks the shutter and catches the expression he’s looking for.
It turns out that this story might itself be made up. Either way, it gives us an insight into the store Avedon sets by stories. It also illustrates another aspect of what Avedon is like and how he captures images like no others – he is an arch manipulator, charismatic and ruthless, who knows what he wants from a shoot and also how to get it.
That applies not just to individual shoots but also to Avedon’s legacy and the brand he is determined to create for himself. He’s perfectly prepared to edit his archive, destroying photos that don’t fit with the narrative he wants to create for himself. And when he talks about his experiences, it’s not always clear where fact ends and fancy begins. Indeed, according to Norma Stevens, his studio manager:
Dick would sometimes make merry with the facts—he even joked that if he ever wrote an autobiography he would call it Here Lies Richard Avedon. He said, “There is no truth, no history – there is only the way in which the story is told.”
Avedon – the Hollywood connection
Not only do many of Avedon’s fashion shoots seem to come straight out of a movie, they even inspire one. Funny Face is based loosely on the exploits of Avedon and his first wife, Doe, played by Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Avedon is retained as a consultant for the movie, revealing some of his working methods, providing tips on lighting and on Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe, and creating title credits and backgrounds plus a montage of freeze-framed fashion.
Funny Face and Avedon’s work as a stills photographer for The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959) bridge his fashion and portrait work, with one of his greatest portraits being of Marilyn Monroe lost in thought.
For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s – she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no.
On a lighter note is Avedon’s virtuoso shoot – witty, stylish, extravagant – with Marilyn for the Christmas 1958 issue of LIFE magazine. The idea is to recreate the images of five stars from different eras. With his interest in theatre and the movies, this is right up the photographer’s street.
In every age the entertainment world produces an enchantress who embodies the fancies men dream by – the places they might have visited with her, music danced to with her, suppers shared with her. In the Gay Nineties, it was Lillian Russell, 160 opulent pounds of curvy Victorian womanhood. Then it was Theda Bara, representing all the women who came bursting from their stays in World War I with predatory eyes and heavy make-up into the new freedom. Afterward there was Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow. Heiress today of the fabled five is Marilyn Monroe. On the following pages, in a stunning feat of re-creation, Marilyn impersonates her predecessors in their most enduring images.
The images here are scans of vintage black and white prints sent to a Hollywood producer, whereas the published versions are in colour.
Avedon – fashion photography’s great innovator
One of the things that makes Avedon such a key figure in fashion photography is his ability to stay ahead of the curve. Fashion is by its nature so ephemeral that few photographers manage to remain current for more than about a decade. Avedon, almost uniquely, manages to evolve his approach to tap into the zeitgeist and reflect the changing times in which he lives. Perhaps that’s because he sees it as an important aspect of his remit.
I believe that the photographer’s job is to record the quality of the woman, of that moment he is working… Our job is always to report on the woman of the moment. The way she lives, the way she dresses. Our conception of beauty changes and is always changing.
Almost from the off, Avedon is pushing at the boundaries, getting his models to act rather than just pose, using blurred movement and soft focus when sharp focus and detail are what’s expected. According to Winthrop Sargeant, that was just the beginning:
The model became pretty, rather than austerely aloof. She laughed, danced, skated, gambolled among herds of elephants, sang in the rain, ran breathlessly down the Champs-Elysées, smiled and sipped cognac at café tables, and otherwise gave evidence of being human.
Some Avedon admirers date the turning point in his style from a celebrated photograph he made for Harper’s Bazaar in 1950, in which Dorian Leigh was shown bursting into laughter while throwing her arms around the winner of a French bicycle race. The picture created a sensation in the profession, since embracing sports heroes and laughing had not previously been thought suitable activities for fashion models, and the extent of its influence soon became clear as models began to appear everywhere embracing bicycle riders, matadors, coachmen, and Lord knows what else, in a state of hilarity. Next, Avedon, again a good jump ahead of the pack, started photographing models with handsome young men posing as their husbands, and then—most revolutionary of all—models wheeling children in perambulators or, to make the family scene complete, dangling them in baskets gaily held by the father, too.
It’s not so easy for us now to appreciate quite how startling Avedon’s work is for people at the time. Over several decades, particularly the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, he helps to define and advance accepted notions of beauty as well as pushing the limits of what’s acceptable in a fashion magazine (for example, his photo of Countess Christina Paolozzi topless in the January, 1962 issue of Harper’s Bazaar). Landmark shoots include:
- Harper’s Bazaar, January, 1959 – China Machado, the first non-Caucasian model to shoot the collections and feature on the cover.
- Harper’s Bazaar, September, 1962 – inspired by the coverage of Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton, the autumn collections shot as if by paparazzi and laid out like a pulp magazine.
- Harper’s Bazaar, December, 1963 – Rebecca Hutchings, the first black model to appear in the magazine.
- Harper’s Bazaar, January, 1965 – set in Ibiza, an editorial implying a ménage à trois.
- Harper’s Bazaar, April, 1965 – a far-out mash-up of pop culture, space age and high fashion shot and edited by Avedon and billed as “a partial passport to the off-beat side of Now.”
- The New Yorker, November 6, 1995 – In Memory of The Late Mr and Mrs Comfort, a dark and satirical fashion editorial starring Nadja Auermann and a skeleton in a tale of decadence and death.
Avedon – his achievement
The second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st were a time of social, political and cultural change. Avedon’s fashion work as well as his portraits are a commentary on those decades, probing and revealing what power and wealth, confidence and vitality, deprivation and helplessness look like and what they do to people – a unique legacy of penetrating and iconic images.
This piece is mainly about Avedon as a fashion photographer, but that’s not the half of it. Additionally, he created a whole series of influential advertising campaigns, the most notable of which starred 15-year-old Brooke Shields modelling a pair of Calvin Klein skin-tight jeans. He branched out into film and video. He initiated ambitious and important projects – In the American West is a great example. He ran a sizeable studio, which among other things acted as a kind of academy, training and inspiring generations of photographers. And through his exhibitions and books he helped raise the status of photography to challenge that of painting and sculpture in the minds of curators, collectors and the public at large.
Few photographers have the determination, the courage and the insightfulness to challenge themselves and their sitters to the extent that Avedon did. That is at the heart of his greatness.
Want to know more about Avedon?
Your preferred search engine will offer you many online sources of information and images.
Here are four videos and a handful of books worth looking up:
- Avedon Fashion 1944–2000 by Vince Aletti, Carol Squiers and Philippe Garner is outstanding for both the images and the accompanying essays.
- Richard Avedon: Made in France by Judith Thurman presents a collection of images made in Paris for Harper’s Bazaar during the 1950s, reproduced to the exact scale of the engraver’s prints made for Avedon, uncropped, on their original mounts, with all of the artist’s notations on both front and back.
- An Autobiography: The Photographs of Richard Avedon is a major retrospective of images chosen by Avedon himself. There is hardly any text.
- Norma Stevens’ and Steven Aronson’s biography, Avedon: Something Personal is a compelling and insightful portrait, laced with reflections on the great man by people who knew and worked with him. Bear in mind, though, that many of the details are disputed and it’s inconceivable that the author remembered her conversations with Avedon verbatim.
- Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers by Michael Gross provides a context in which to assess Avedon’s achievements in the field of fashion photography.