Fashion and Fantasy: Richard Avedon at the Casino at Le Touquet

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Fashion and Fantasy: Richard Avedon at the Casino at Le Touquet
Richard Avedon, 'Sunny Harnett and Alla, Evening Dresses by Balmain, Casino, Le Touquet', August 1954
Fashion and Fantasy: Richard Avedon at the Casino at Le Touquet

Richard Avedon was the most influential fashion photographer of the post-war era, and his enduring images helped to define America’s image of style, beauty and culture. Avedon studied photography with Alexey Brodovitch, the art director for Harper’s Bazaar, at his Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research. Brodovitch saw potential in Avedon’s work, and supported the young photographer throughout his early career. At the age of 22 Avedon began working as a freelance photographer, primarily for Harper’s Bazaar.

Initially denied the use of a studio by the magazine, he photographed models on the streets. Harper’s Bazaar was quick to celebrate the newly liberated Paris, and the mid 1940s saw a focus on the post-war developments in French couture. Many of Avedon’s images from this period were taken in and around Paris, with his models placed in glamorous, stereotypical French environments such as cafes and nightclubs. Avedon brought a uniquely American energy to France and quickly became well known for his talent for finding new and innovative ways to photograph fashion.

Avedon was revolutionary in that he photographed women and the clothes they wore in movement, and in interaction with their environment. He celebrated the individuality of each model and gained a reputation for ‘making’ the careers of models, often working with one particular woman intensively for a prolonged period of time. He chose models not just for their beauty but also for certain dramatic qualities of personality that he recognised as suited to his particular theatrical needs. Sunny Harnett was Avedon’s muse in the early 1950s. She was pale, fair-haired with high cheekbones and striking features.

Avedon chose Harnett to depict the heroine of his 1954 shoot set at the casino at Le Touquet, where he photographed her draped recklessly over the roulette wheel and looking poised and dangerous at the gaming tables. Avedon brought story telling to fashion, and this image is perhaps the best example of his ability to introduce narrative into a shoot. Le Touquet was known as ‘Paris by the sea’, and was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s eponymous casino at Royale-le-Eaux in his James Bond novel, Casino Royale, published the previous year. In this photograph, Avedon captures all the glamour and opulence of the casino. He uses a crowd of gamblers with a range of expressions and poses to enliven the image, adding a sense of movement and energy. Avedon creates a complex and exquisitely detailed fantasy world, with a composition that revolves around the two elegant, statuesque figures of Harnett and Alla. The photograph is an exceptional example of Avedon’s fashion photography, pertaining to all the drama and vivacity for which his images are now celebrated.

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