Dovima with Elephants is the quintessential fashion image by Richard Avedon, a dynamic photograph capturing the energy that coursed through the city of Paris, the glamourous blossoming of the fashion magazine, and a high point of the photographer’s career in the 1950s. The image represents a defining fulfilment of Avedon’ collaboration with the outstanding editorial and art-direction talent of Harper’s Bazaar. Freezing a sweeping gesture from top model and Avedon favorite Dovima, the photograph generates a line of energy that pulses through the entire image as if it is ready to jump to life. The dramatic dress was one of the first created by a young Yves Saint Laurent for the house of Dior; the image becomes a powerful symbol of the creative renaissance of postwar Paris. Timeless and surreal, Dovima with Elephants is an icon in the truest sense, cementing Avedon’s position as one of the most important figures, not just in the field of fashion photographers, but in the broader history of 20th century photography and the visual arts.
By 1955, already ten years into his work as a staff photographer for Harper’s, Avedon, encouraged by art director Alexey Brodovitch and championed by editor Carmel Snow, had played a crucial role in energizing the visual tone of the magazine. Month after month he contributed captivating images filled with dynamism and excitement and, in an important break with the dominant conventions of previous years, he regularly shot on location and conveyed a sense of vitality in his models’ gestures. These changes, integral to the development of the fashion magazine and fashion photography as a whole, ushered in the golden age of Harper’s Bazaar and marked a highly productive phase of Avedon’s career that set the scene for Dovima with Elephants.
This period of Avedon’s career was also defined by his intense love affair with Paris. Since he first visited the city in the 1940s, Avedon became enchanted by Paris and very effectively instilled his images with the charm and allure that so engaged and inspired him. In each image he captured in Paris, Avedon crafted a visual cocktail that used the backdrop of emblematic street or interiors to shape a specific fantasy for his viewers; the drama and delight of Dovima with Elephants, realized at the city’s Cirque d’Hiver, perfectly defines this ambition. Avedon so successfully romanticized the city within his images that they came to define Paris in the imagination of Harper’s Bazaar’s American audience.
The model chosen to star in the photo was Bronx-born Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, known professionally as Dovima. A sharp and sophisticated beauty, Dovima was appreciated by leading photographers of the day for her ability to assume a role and project herself effortlessly in front of a camera. In marked contrast to the static studio poses that characterized so much fashion photography of the 1930s and 40s, Dovima moved dynamically within her frame. She brought a theatricality and drama to her modeling, a perfect collaborator for Avedon who was himself a lifelong devotee of the performing arts. This shared passion connected them on a deep level, so much so that Dovima even claimed they “became like mental Siamese twins, with me knowing what he wanted before he explained it.”
It was in this way, with little prompting required from Avedon, that Dovima struck what is now one of the most memorable poses in fashion photography. Like many of the best of Avedon’s fashion images, Dovima with Elephants could be a still from a film, perhaps even a freeze-frame from a movie’s dance scene with Dovima and the elephants captured in perfect unison. Each element in the photo enhances the next – the synergy between Dovima’s dress and gesture, the mirrored movement from the animals’ trunks, the short depth of field rendering Dovima in sharp detail against a softer background all combine harmoniously to construct the immaculate image.
Dovima with Elephants has deservedly established its prominence in Avedon’s career as well as in the history of photography. The photograph became the poster image for Avedon’s landmark exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978 and, ultimately, no survey of the history of fashion photography can be complete without reference to this composition. In 2017, Time magazine canonized 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. Today, over sixty years since it was created, Avedon’s Dovima with Elephants continues to enthrall viewers with its enduring vision of 1950s Parisian glamour.