Richard Avedon - Photographs London Friday, May 19, 2023 | Phillips
  • “I saw the elephants under an enormous skylight. . . I then had to find the right dress and I knew there was a potential here for a kind of dream image.”
    —Richard Avedon

    In a career replete with remarkable images, Richard Avedon’s (1923-2004) Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, stands out as a masterpiece. Made in 1955 on assignment for Harper’s Bazaar, this tour-de-force encapsulates Avedon’s uniquely inventive approach. Few photographers working for the fashion magazines in the 1950s had Avedon’s intuitive ability to create an image that was novel and exciting but also served the editorial purpose of showcasing couture. With its brilliant mélange of disparate elements, Dovima with Elephants sets an entirely new bar for fashion photography. 


    In August of 1955, Avedon travelled to Paris to photograph the couture collections. At the fortuitous invitation of fellow photographer Sam Shaw to the set of a movie he was shooting, Avedon visited the historic Cirque d’Hiver. He was given a tour that included the Cirque’s animal enclosures and immediately grasped their potential as the setting for a photoshoot. On the day of the shoot, Avedon masterfully choreographed an ensemble of stylists, assistants and animal trainers, along with the American model, Dovima, who was sheathed in a sleek gown with flowing sash designed by the young Yves Saint Laurent for the House of Dior. The resulting image of the elegant model posed against the massive, rough forms of the elephants is both incongruous and exhilarating. Avedon was able to see the elephants as shapes with graceful curves that echo those of the model and her gown. He deftly used both sets of curves, combining them into one triumphant picture.  


    With its appearance the following month in Harper’s Bazaar, illustrating ‘Carmel Snow’s Paris Report,’ Dovima with Elephants created a new standard by which fashion photographs would be judged. In a quote that seems to apply directly to this image, Harper’s art director and Avedon’s mentor Alexey Brodovitch succinctly summed up the young photographer’s unique talents: ‘The shock-surprise in his photos is the ingredient that has always given his work freshness and excitement. He has an amazing ability to spot the unusual and exciting qualities in each woman he photographs. This, combined with his tremendous imagination, makes his work so exceptional.’ 

    • Provenance

      Phillips, New York, Important Photographs from the Collection of Dr. Anthony Terrana, 2 April 2013, lot 17

    • Literature

      Harper’s Bazaar, September 1955, p. 215
      Famous Photographers Course Lesson 1-8, Westport: Famous Photographers School, 1964, p. 10
      Avedon: Photographs, 1947-1977, New York: The Met, 1978, back cover & pl. 159
      N. Hall-Duncan, The History of Fashion Photography, New York: Abrams, 1979, p. 137
      D. Bailey & M. Harrison, Shots of Style: Great Fashion Photographs, London: V&A, 1985, cat. no. 7
      Richard Avedon: Evidence, 1944-1994, New York: Whitney Museum of American Art, 1994, p. 53
      Richard Avedon: Made in France, San Francisco: Fraenkel Gallery, 2001, n.p.
      Richard Avedon: Woman in the Mirror, New York: Abrams, 2005, p. 37
      M. Juul Holm, Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004, Humlebæk: Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007, n.p.
      Avedon Fashion: 1944-2000, New York: ICP, 2009, p. 137

    • Artist Biography

      Richard Avedon

      American • 1923 - 2004

      From the inception of Richard Avedon's career, first at Harper's Bazaar and later at Vogue, Avedon challenged the norms for editorial photography. His fashion work gained recognition for its seemingly effortless and bursting energy, while his portraits were celebrated for their succinct eloquence. "I am always stimulated by people," Avedon has said, "almost never by ideas." 

      Indeed, as seen in his portraits — whether of famed movie stars or everyday people — the challenge for Avedon was conveying the essence of his subjects. His iconic images were usually taken on an 8 x 10 inch camera in his studio with a plain white background and strobe lighting, creating his signature minimalist style. Avedon viewed the making and production of photographs as a performance similar to literature and drama, creating portraits that are simultaneously intensely clear, yet deeply mysterious.

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Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August

Gelatin silver print, printed later, mounted.
59.5 x 47.7 cm (23 3/8 x 18 3/4 in.)
Signed and numbered 18/50 in ink on the verso; title, edition and copyright credit reproduction limitation stamps on the reverse of the linen flush-mount.

Full Cataloguing

£100,000 - 150,000 

Sold for £139,700

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London Auction 19 May 2023