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Excerpt: 'Woman in the Mirror'

Nov 30, 2005

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"These photographs of women will knock you out cold, whether it's 50's model Suzy Parker in haute couture worthy of Cinderella or the iconic portrait of aristocrat Marella Agnella," writes senior correspondent Ketzel Levine about this Richard Avedon collection of photographs. Levine recommends it in her holiday gift-book roundup this year.

Excerpt: Introduction

When Avedon became a professional fashion photographer, fashion models were not public celebrities, their work had no prestige, and their names were not generally known. The job still carried vestiges of the disrepute attached to artists' models of the nineteenth century, when any woman who posed professionally was vaguely believed to sell her body in other ways. By the mid-twentieth century, a model might be supposed to have some connection with the stage or screen, usually at the casting couch level. People assumed models had only perfect looks, and neither talent nor honor.

Besides that, beautiful women in fashion plates were perceived as doll-like creatures with the nonliving perfection of mannequins in store windows. They were associated more with feathered showgirls posing on the cabaret stage than with the women who bought and wore the mink and chiffon. Photographers of society ladies and other famous women, who often wore great dresses, aimed to enhance the sitter's personality as painters did, but the private feelings of the fashion-photographer's model were considered irrelevant to her image. Evidence of them might even debase the tone, given the kind of girl she probably was; and the models in fashion plates instead became famous for their "remote" look. Avedon arrived to change all that. He was assisted by ongoing changes in the cultural place of fashion, but the arresting nature of his work helped to move those along.

...Avedon's fashion photography reflects the fact that he started out professionally in that genre, unlike such established artists as Steichen and Man Ray, who occasionally lent their serious talents to trivial fashion. As a novice, while assembling a portfolio to show the art director at Harper's Bazaar, Avedon had channeled his already charged photographic imagination into fashion-style images of his beautiful younger sister. It now seems as if the aesthetic dimension of fashion was then claiming him through her. We can see how the wonderfully dressed woman could always be a potential beautiful sister, a kindred spirit to the mirror as he felt and saw it, vibrating all the more movingly through the beauty of the garment.

From Woman in the Mirror, introduction by Anne Hollander. Reprinted with permission from the publisher.

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