THERE'S AN ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Today we recognize World Elephant Day. Originally launched in August 2012, the awareness campaign aims to bring attention to the urgent plight, the brutal killing and butchering for tusks, of Asian and African elephants. In a nod to this crucially important cause, we recall Richard Avedon’s iconic photograph, Dovima with the Elephants — seen then versus seeing it now.
It’s August in Paris, 1955. The Cirque d’Hiver, home to circuses, orchestral concerts and entertainment, becomes the setting for one of fashion’s most iconic photographs. Within the grandiose structure, built as a compliment to the Emperor of the French Napoleon III, Richard Avedon and his lens admire the striking poise and unconventional beauty of supermodel-known-as Dovima. The photographer describes her as “the last of the great elegant, aristocratic beauties…” Enormous skylights soak the space with natural sunlight. In a black, ankle length Christian Dior gown with a white silk sash — designed by Dior’s new assistant, Yves Saint Laurent — Dovima emits femininely composed gestures…sinuous contours, goddess-like arms reach out, her left hip delicately stances, elongating her frame as she stands gracefully and narcissistically on hay-covered dirt. At her fingertips are restless, wrinkle-skinned elephants with chains on their feet. Avedon captures a moment of precision while the elephants thrust their trunks towards the sky, a depiction known for denoting optimism, good fortune and luck.
Avedon’s demotic energy took fashion out of the studio and onto the streets, cafés and ever-changing landscapes of real life. Dovima, an anomalous choice for a Harper’s Bazaar portrait, is an absolute portrayal of that entrancing style — known not only for beautiful imagery, but also for arresting storytelling. It’s an artistically spoken juxtaposition of model and creature, young and old, strength and frailty, grace and awkwardness, freedom and captivity.
In the post-wear decade that Dovima with the Elephants was created, society was fueled by covetous aspirations, luxury, stasis, elegance, egotism. Avedon would later say, “The ideal of beauty then was the opposite of what it is now. It stood for an extension of the aristocratic view of women as ideals, of women as dreams, of women as almost surreal subjects. Dovima fit that in her proportions.” (Dovima as Blondeen-esque; connected to a balance between the material and spiritual.)
Well, is it really all that different now than it was then… What’s probably changed most isn’t the values, but the way we approach and define such ideals. It’s sensible to say that our modern generation has the ability to view Dovima with a different set of progressive eyes — as a story of power and acting on that power.
Elephants are extraordinary, majestic and physically impressive animals full of emotion and intelligence. Don’t they say an elephant never forgets? Revered as innately wise in many cultures, an elephant symbolizes nobility, strength and passion — a retention that’s prevailed Western mindsets since the middle ages. Today, knowing the dangers plaguing Asian and African elephants, even despite auspicious symbolism and their awe-inspiring physical presence, it’s hard to consider elephants without an undercut of sadness.
Countless coversations over Avedon’s iconic image lend to the aforementioned contradictions of age and beauty, a provoking thought encapsulated with stress and uncertainty. The Christian Dior dress is fantastically sleek, yet no more or less captivating than the rawness of the elephants. In The Photography Book, on photos that changed the world, the author explains, “The dress that Dovima is wearing is elegant, yet your eye is still not detracted from the elephants. The dress acts as the focal point of the photo while also fading away to the background.”
At a glance, Dovima is sophisticated, brave, chic, smooth, stunning. Diaphanously in charge. It’s minute details — a leaned glance, nearly closed eyes — that reveal hints of hesitation, nerves even.
The elephants are unraveled, rough, but also incredibly full of movement. And then that most piercing detail falls into place: the chains.
Perhaps, in the midst of our current cultural climate, the glamour of Dovima is tainted in its contradictions, evoking a sadness and unfairness. If you think of it this way, female and pachyderm might even relate. Dovima: objectified by societal standards of being commanding yet elegant, protective yet graceful, certain yet never too comfortable. She’s constantly aware of unrealistic expectations and incontrollable looming circumstances, such as aging and its inevitable consequences on beauty. No matter how in charge she might appear, the sheer power of the elephants is a constant threat, and stands there anyways. Like the elephants, she too seems trapped.
In such a way, Dovima may actually suggest a sense of understanding and sympathy, joining the viewer as a kind of spectator within the image itself. The light touch of her hand and seemingly calm demeanor could portray thoughtfulness, but not necessarily acceptance.
Avedon’s setting, of course, would be politically incorrect today. And back then, the likes of such an interpretation wouldn’t carry much resonance. It’s an interesting dichotomy that lies in the values of that time versus now.
The elephant as a fixture in art and literature remains fascinating, but the reality of these lively creatures is anything but… In parts of India, population growth has brought with it a tragic man-versus-elephant dynamic, side clamoring for the same land. The roaming African landscape seems undefinable without elephants, yet two destructive poaching crusades have led to a demise in their presence by the hundreds of thousands — one in the 1970s and 1980s, the other, beginning around 2009, now underway.
According to an article recently published in The New York Times, the number of Central African forest elephants declined by 62 percent in less than a decade, a devastation resulting from a combination of illegal hunting, habitat loss and growing civil strife. As poaching frenzies over tusks continue to drive brutal killing and butchering, their status on the Endangered Species Act list will soon switch from “threatened” to “endangered.”
elephant as muse