Sent by Harper’s Bazaar in 1955 to shoot the Paris haute couture collections, Richard Avedon chose Bronx-born model Dovima (née Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba), whose sharp, sophisticated, icy beauty embodied the refined standards of the Post-War era. Graceful and effortless in front of a camera, Dovima was the favored model by leading photographers of the day. Unsurprisingly, Avedon declared that up until then he had never met anyone whose movement was so ethereal it was worth freezing. Himself a perfectionist, Avedon found in Dovima the ideal vessel to herald his viewpoint that it was the woman who made the clothes, not the other way around.
Shattering the stillness that typifed fashion photography in the first half of the 20th century, Avedon, inspired by the bursts of energy in the photographs of Jacques Henri Lartigue and Martin Munkácsi, encouraged his models to leave the studio and playfully jump, dance and twirl in their garments. By injecting high-powered motion, the garment became a living, breathing sculpture that morphed and in turn dazzled the eye. ‘In Avedon’s photographs’, Harold Brodkey notes, ‘the stillness is ravaged by motion, the hint of motion, or by feeling: that is to say, emotion.’ No photograph embodies Avedon’s success in marrying fashion with movement as much as Dovima with Elephants.
The original set that Avedon and Dovima had been designated was at a different corner of Paris’s acclaimed performance space, the Cirque d’Hiver. However, upon seeing the pachyderms, Avedon sent Dovima to playfully engage them, and with little further instructions, she struck one of the most memorable poses in the history of fashion photography. Donning the very first dress designed by Christian Dior’s assistant, a promising nineteen-year old talent named Yves Saint Laurent, Dovima stretched her arms, arched her neck, tilted her shoulders and crossed her legs, creating a breathtaking symphony of brushstrokes that fluidly connected the composition. In addition to being a definitively elegant confluence of lines, the image cleverly incorporates a series of opposing forces that harmoniously coexist between the model and the elephants: the sumptuous luxury of her dress against their wrinkled skin; the floating freedom of her pose versus their shackled captivity; her youthful innocence versus their worn wisdom; and perhaps most notably and compellingly, the theme of Man versus Animal, turning this image into modern-day incarnation of Beauty and the Beast. Avedon had stated that he was going for a dreamlike quality in the image, and indeed, over sixty years since it was first taken, Dovima with Elephants remains a surreal, timeless icon.
In 2017 Time magazine canonized Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants as one of the ‘100 Most Influential Images of All Time,’ the only fashion image to be included in the illustrious list.