Avedon’s Roman Photo Album

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Published February 2, 2009

A call out of the blue from Rome’s Alta Moda (Italian Haute Couture) inviting me to spend five luxurious nights and days at the Academie de France’s Villa Medici (room 13, with vaulted ceilings bigger than my apartment with a bird’s eye view of Saint Peter’s, but also haunted tapping noises at night of Popes past). It’s here that I found Rome’s fashion cognoscenti in a crisis state: Alta Moda is being ignored by the world’s fashion press, who are all too busy fawning over Keira Kneightley and Kanye West chez Chanel! I’m here to tell you that Rome is where it’s at. The Alta Moda has redesigned itself  to include shows by young designers, and exhibitions including one that reveals an until-now secret chapter in the life of America’s primo fashion phtotographer, Richard Avedon.

 

“Theo by Richard Avedon,” curated by Valentina Moncada, tells the little-known tale of Theophane “Theo” Graham, a budding New York cover girl pictured in the October 1949 issue of  Harper’s Bazaar. The series featured the latest Haute Couture, notably Christian Dior’s post-war ‘New Look.’ In his early 1920s, and a staff photographer at Bazaar since 1944, it was quite a coup for Avedon to nab the Paris assignment, which he inherited from Louise Dahl-Wolfe in 1948.

 

As the story goes, Avedon had threatened Snow that he would “defect” to Vogue if he wasn’t sent to Paris. Headed back in 1949, he insisted on his choice of two models for the trip, instead of the customary one, to help “inspire his creativity.” Dorian Leigh accepted immediately, but his other choice, twenty-two-year-old “Theo,” took a bit more convincing. It was a brief, shining moment in Graham’s life: She quit modeling soon thereafter.

In a gesture he would never repeat, Avedon gave “Theo” a collection of contact sheets and prints from the Paris series. Her son, architect Enrico Carlo Saraceni, discovered the pictures in an old trunk years later. In Avedon’s shots, Theo’s fresh face seems to look to a brilliant future. She’s dressed in a wasp waist Dior suit, surrounded by smiling uniformed boys at a French orphanage, or posing like the Statue of Liberty in a white-tiled kitchen in Dior’s celebrated “White Satin Column.” The accounts from Dorian Leigh’s chatty diary, memos from Carmel Snow and notes from Avedon to Theo, illustrate the photographer’s first attempts to ditch stiff posing for a more passionate approach.

As for “Theo,” Moncanda writes in the show’s catalogue: “She was in a certain sense Avedon’s first “swan,” (preceding his celebrated 1953 picture called “the Swan” of long-necked Marella Agnelli). “Your picture’s divine,” telegraphed Carmel Snow to Theo after the October 1949 issue appeared. “But,” writes Moncada, “his muse never returned to the Paris collections. Having blazed brilliantly like a comet she simply faded away.” Dorian Leigh convinced Avedon to choose her younger sister Suzy Parker as the second model for the next Paris collections.

Theo by Richard Avedon is on view through March 1 at Rome’s Capitoline Museum and the Academie de France, Villa Medici.