Was Avedon kidding? Satirizing his professional bread and butter with elaborately staged movie stills for which there were no movies? If he was, he never admitted it. He always justified the fashion industry. "They're all serious, hardworking people," he said in 1965. "They just speak a different language."
SUZY PARKER WITH ROBIN TATTERSALL, DRESS BY DIOR, PLACE DE LA CONCORDE, PARIS, AUGUST 1956: For most of us, the couture, though always top-of-mind for Avedon, takes a back seat to the gags and concepts. PHOTOGRAPH BY RICHARD AVEDON © RICHARD AVEDON FOUNDATION.
Even when confessing a partial disaffection with fashion photography late in his career, he never actually disparaged the genre. In the mid 1970s, he explained, "There's always been a separation between fashion and what I call my 'deeper' work. Fashion is where I make my living. I'm not knocking it. It's a pleasure to make a living that way."
As attested by what's on the walls at the MFA, that separation is very real but not terribly huge. With the exception of excerpts from the self-consciously avant-garde late-career series titled "The Comforts Portfolio: In Memory of the Late Mr. & Mrs. Comfort: A Fable in 24 Episodes" (1995), which features model Nadja Auermann in a terror-fantasy environment and co-stars a skeletal Mr. Death figure, the pieces assembled by the International Center of Photography and the Richard Avedon Foundation are playfulness first. Still, the body of these 140 works sums up Avedon's career in fashion and faithfully follows our culture's trends, looks, values, and standards of sophistication over 60 years. In retrospect, at least, these fun photos actually mean something.
Standout aspects of the show include the "Paris at Night" room, in which fashion shots set in Parisian bars and bistros hang in a dark-walled room lit only by spotlights on the individual photos. Another room is devoted to Avedon's in-studio work with such household-name late-'60s models as Penelope Tree, Veruschka, Twiggy, and Jean Shrimpton; it features a large-format series of these modish visions of youth dancing in front of plain, no-seam backdrops.
The clothing showcased is, to understate the matter, striking, but what survives the shifting winds of fashion in these pictures are the settings, the personalities of the models that Avedon turned into superstars and household names, and the exquisite, seemingly flawless, photography. You don't really want to pay attention to the clothes.
Nearby, in the Herb Ritts Gallery, the MFA is showing 70 black-and-white prints by a long-time-locally-based photographer. "Nicholas Nixon: Family Album" comprises personal, intimate pictures of Nixon's immediate family — mostly tightly cropped body shots of bare skin with a recurring emphasis on hands that seems to endow them with non-specific symbolic value. These aren't snapshots; they're photos capable of making more universal statements, though those statements are often a bit elusive.
The show's centerpiece is a wall devoted to The Brown Sisters, a series of annual group portraits of Nixon's wife, Bebe, and her three siblings dating back to 1975. The promised gift of the well-known (and still growing) set to the museum was the initial prompt for this show, and it certainly is the most memorable thing on display. Tracking the strong-faced sisters, always posed in identical order, as they grow and age through the sequence transcends the project's inherent curiosity factor and triggers thoughts of aging, mortality, relationships, familial documentation, and time itself. It's worth a second look.
CLIF GARBODEN is a freelance writer who wishes there were more pictures of Jean Shrimpton in the Richard Avedon show.