Nice Work If You Can Get It

Avedon Advertising BY The Richard Avedon Foundation, Laura Avedon, James Martin, Rebecca Arnold. New York: Harry N. Abrams. 352 pages. $125.

The cover of Avedon Advertising

A riddle: What’s made of mink-coated totems, toothpaste Lolitas, Thunderbirds, middlebrow colas, Kotex napkins, and Versace decadence? Answer: Avedon Advertising (Abrams, $125), a three-hundred-and-fifty-page collection of wall-to-wall, in-your-face ads—a dizzying exercise in optic overload. Richard Avedon’s impossibly long-running, far-ranging advertising work—created alongside his fashion and portrait photography—amounted to a sixty-year-long research project. How many forms of mild contradiction could he juggle inside a strictly commercial picture? How many suave anomalies could fit in an ad campaign? How much real desire, humor, or counterintuitive ordinariness could he slip into a world of absolute artifice?

Maybe it ain’t art. But it is as invasive and resilient as a brain tumor—ephemera concentrated until it metastasizes into a permanent fixture in your own interior landscape. There is a 1959 Royal Crown Cola ad that puts the “pop” in soda: model Suzy Parker with two straws between her teeth and a smile so fierce, amused, and radiant her face ought to be on a postage stamp. It’s apple pie, Fourth of July fireworks, and watching JFK bang Marilyn on a yacht off Hyannis Port in broad daylight all rolled into one. Avedon did every kind of gig, from glamour and couture to potato chips and rental cars, from Catherine Deneuve in Chanel to Oprah in tights for Revlon. His ad world was a stage and all its products merely players.

Every angle and gesture in Avedon Advertising demonstrates how fastidiously assembled these seemingly blithe images really were. For Avedon and his all-pro troupe of models, stylists, makeup artists, and hairdressers, the process was both rigorously controlled and highly intuitive: “A little circus of intention,” he called it. For the better part of the last American century, Avedon presented and represented the evergreen joy of wearing or imbibing or simply basking in the right look/product at the exact right place and time. The very thought of you embodied in the difference freshness makes, the spell of Chanel, the joyousness of cotton.

Laura Avedon’s introduction quotes her father-in-law musing in 1965 that his “creative work in advertising is the hardest, most honest work that I do. There are no illusions.” That’s a funny thing to say about the ad game, which is supposedly all about the fantasy, even if the Freudian-slippery adverts might prove to be, as he put it, “a more valuable social document” than his “finest fashion photographs.” These layouts strive for a measure of self-awareness, a sense that the models generally have their wits about them and everyone knows what’s really on the end of their salad forks. And it’s delicious all the same.

Avedon had come straight out of the merchant marine (where he took ID pictures), a twenty-year-old using his wits, moxie, and father’s Garment District connections to land his early assignments. His first advertising image was shot in 1944; World War II was still going strong. It was a milieu of weighty, ornate dresses and gowns, budding grandes dames in “satin theatre robes”: aristo body armor and bourgeois chastity belts. Tinted 1947 black-and-white images for Bonwit Teller promise something different: an odalisque red jacket and hat set off collage-style against the model’s pasted-in appearance, like a Vassar girl dressing for a lecture on Hannah Höch. (Or perhaps a startling source for the little child in the red coat in Schindler’s List.) From the start, Avedon injected breeziness into the fantasies he was fleshing out. He had a flair for livening up cloistered formats.

Richard Avedon’s cover image for Harper’s Bazaar, January 1947. © The Richard Avedon Foundation
Richard Avedon’s cover image for Harper’s Bazaar, January 1947. © The Richard Avedon Foundation

Rebecca Arnold’s essay “Imagining New Lives: Avedon’s Advertising Legacy” frames this quality by adroitly sketching the workings of the industry—the revolving brands, the ad agencies, the magazines, the shifting tastes—and how the photographer always kept himself in the thick of things. Laura Avedon’s brief prefaces to each chapter and decade (e.g., “Dawn of the Megabrands 1980–1989”) elaborate his ups and downs in the marketplace but leave it to the reader to tease out the wider implications. For example, her just-the-facts paragraph about her father-in-law’s classic ads for the Blackglama fur company is tersely informative. But this episode cries out for more. It’s a pop opera or at least a feature-film Mad Men reboot in utero: Richard Avedon was brought in by Jane Trahey of the Trahey/Wolf agency for her clients the Great Lakes Mink Association—which in the late ’60s she had rechristened “Blackglama.” It was a masterstroke of branding Trahey would sell with Avedon’s stunning images of great divas and the slogan “What Becomes a Legend Most?” Dietrich, Streisand, Callas, Horne nearly bursting out of the frame: If anyone wanted to illustrate the phrase “the genius of capitalism,” these ads were made to order.

Avedon’s creative breakthrough might have been a January 1947 Harper’s Bazaar cover. It’s a symmetrical day at the beach. A woman plants her long legs in an A-frame formation; she’s wearing a blue sweater and an askew v-shaped scarf that playfully accents the V-for-victory sign formed by the crotch of her bright orange shorts, as a shirtless man, seen from behind, lounges in the background. It may sound hypersexual—even vulgar for the time—but model Natálie Nickerson stares you down with steely nonchalance and coolly ambiguous intent. It’s as if she has sprung from the daydreaming mind of Avedon himself, who, it turns out, is the man reclining in the photo, his head aligned with her right leg, suggesting either a Danish footstool or a docile retriever. The picture’s formal, eccentric elegance is charged with offhand bravado and a dab of destabilizing knowingness.

Throughout his career, Avedon’s tableaux tilted toward screwball comedy—the sense that something madcap might break out at the drop of a hatpin. (Take the delectable/risible absurdity of his Maidenform ads from 1952, in which Cleopatra lounges on a tiger-skin rug in a silver bullet-point bra.) His peak early images are for Swansdown, a fashion house I’d never heard of: One two-page spread features a couple of buttoned-up women sneaking glances at the gorilla on the next page, who is clutching a swooning ingenue. This King Kong kitsch tango is advertisement as entertainment; another shows a striding woman in eerie sunglasses modeling a wool-and-angora suit whose trim lines seem to say, “The Martians are coming.”

On the other end of the sophistication spectrum, the hideous white-bread revelers in the Ruppert Knickerbocker beer ads are suburban goon squads at ease; drunks go bowling in a Seagram’s layout that reminds you alcoholism was a group sport in 1961. Not funny, this forced, teeth-grinding gaiety, but in the back of his mind Avedon must have been picturing the Mad magazine parodies such advertisements inspired. Later filmed commercials, for Jun Ropé, Calvin Klein Obsession, and Coco, have a quality that also invites parody—a deadpan over-the-topness that reached its apotheosis in the early-’80s Dior campaign featuring “the Diors,” a mini-mock-family where André Gregory was the loopy, grinning dad, in evening clothes and perpetually out to lunch. Warhol even had a comedic cameo.

Like Fred Astaire—who played a sly version of Avedon in Funny Face in 1957—used to sing: “Nice work if you can get it.” Work was Avedon’s ebullient but relentless fixation. Decades came and went, clients too (six hundred or so). As did models: Parker, Lauren Hutton (the first million-dollar supermodel, whose Revlon contract stipulated Avedon had to be her photographer), leonine teen Brooke Shields in her Calvin Klein jeans, Iman—a who’s who of beauty-for-hire. But it always came down to getting the scene right, even in the late work where Avedon seemed to be running on autopilot. He’d done it all before but could still nail a tagline with a precise representation, draping a naked Isabeli Fontana in Hermès handbags along with a slogan that could have been the story of his career: “Everything changes but nothing changes.”

Avedon Advertising ultimately conveys the industry’s omnipresence (verging on omnipotence) and its imperviousness to dismissal, ridicule, or refusal. No amount of critiques or parodies or rejoinders seems to make the slightest dent. Advertising is a system for exploiting and enhancing insecurity—the secret in plain sight is that it also ameliorates just that. (“Vicious Circle, the new fragrance from .”) It’s a pure sham, bourgeois Magical Thinking, brainwashing, gaslighting, Handmaid’s Tale–lighting. Indeed. You “see through” it. Exactly. It’s “a construct.” Yup. And this book is a humongous monument to the whole con game. Gauche, pushy, funny, joyous, stilted, desperate, self-defeating, self-realizing, self-lobotomizing. Idealizing and cannibalizing, it’s autonomy in a bottle. But it still works. And winks . . .

The most haunting Avedon ad was for a Minneapolis department store: a black-and-white spread of a model’s delicately made-up eyes, like a weird, Little Sister–is-watching-you inversion of Jay DeFeo’s famous seven-foot drawing. The eyes are wide apart and open, with curling lashes. Beguiling? Sad? Clear-headed? Lost? “I know what you’re thinking”? “I know what you did”? The answer’s “all of the above.” And there’s nothing you can do about it.

Howard Hampton, a longtime contributor to Bookforum, is the author of Born in Flames: Termite Dreams, Dialectical Fairy Tales, and Pop Apocalypses (Harvard University Press, 2007).