Visionaire’s Cecilia Dean Talks Working with Avedon and New Film Exhibition, Moving Image

The model-turned-editor has unearthed films that offer a glimpse into the photographer’s extraordinary process

No other fashion photographer has been as prolific, influential, or legendary as Richard Avedon. He essentially defined what we now refer to as fashion imagery. As such, one might think there would be no shortage of information and compilations of his work, that no stone would be left unturned. But for an artist whose work extends over 60 years, there is always something to discover, which is what happened when Visionaire co-founders Cecilia Dean and James Kaliardos went digging for some old ads, only to stumble across a video treasure trove, now on view in the exhibit Richard Avedon—Moving Image.

It all started with James, who’s my partner at Visionaire. He had heard about these unreleased commercials that Avedon had done,” says Dean, referring to ads for the Japanese company Jun Ropé in the 1970s starring the decade’s biggest models—Lauren Hutton, Verushka, Jean Shrimpton, and Angelica Huston. “James remembered seeing them because Avedon had shown them to him, but no one else has seen them. So we contacted the Japanese company and they gave us all these incredible high-res files.”

But that was only the beginning. The duo (both of whom had worked with the iconic photographer) reached out to the Richard Avedon Foundation, which had just finished moving, and had boxes full of VHS tapes that were said to be casting interviews. It was only after Dean and Kaliardos had the tapes digitized and watched them that they knew what they had on their hands. “They were these really great interviews with these models—some of them well-known—just answering questions. Avedon was asking questions off camera, and some of them were incredibly personal. What was so interesting was when you saw the final commercial, they were the same words,” she says. “We understood immediately that it wasn’t just a bunch of models reciting scripts, they actually crafted the script based on the model. It was such an interesting process. It was so thrilling to see that he really treated models as individuals, with a voice, with a personality, and he really kept that authenticity.”

The films will be shown on a series of 11 screens, each with a different theme. One will exclusively show the Jun Ropé ads. Sound cones will assist with the audio, while those interested in only the visuals can sit back on a pile of pillows—an idea inspired by one of Avedon’s images. “That was actually a really fun idea, which came from this woman, Marla Weinhoff, who’s this really awesome set designer,” explained Dean. “She used to work with Avedon all the time, and collaborated with him on tons of photos, including the Versace ads, which have this massive amount of pillows, with all these beautiful people just lounging on them.”

One of the biggest draws will no doubt be the Jun Ropé ads, which were previously only available in low-quality Youtube videos. “I feel like they completely withstood the test of time. They are so relevant right now. Just this idea of ‘behind-the-scenes,’ it’s so interesting in that he’s in it, playing himself. But the whole thing is completely choreographed and scripted, and cast,” said Dean of the commercials. “I think that’s a testament to his work—he’s capturing someone’s personality. So it’s authentic, and someone’s personality is a truth. It can’t go out of fashion, because it’s who you are.”

This theme of capturing the person, rather than the product, is present in all of the footage found, including the Chanel No. 5 ads with Catherine Deneuve and commercials for CK Be. Avedon was able to get to the heart of someone by taking the time to speak with them. “You’d always just assume it’s an actress reading a script. It’s not. It was just so much deeper than that—and some of the interviews were very personal.” Dean went on to recount some of their findings. “One model is talking about her disturbed mother, another model is talking about depression, another model is talking about the suicide of her friend…these were heavy topics for a fragrance ads. But they just become so memorable, and so personal, and authentic. I think there’s a direct correlation with his art photography, when he’s capturing portraits.”

Dean actually had first hand experience with an Avedon casting. Instead of being booked for a job through her agency, the former model found herself having tea in the photographer’s living room. “I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but of course, looking back now, well obviously this is part of his process. He’s trying to get to know me, or see some inner truth in me.”

I think anyone who’s worked with him had a profound experience. When we started telling people that we were working on this exhibition, they were so enthusiastic,” she later added, noting that she and Kaliardos made sure to track down the models in the tapes, due to the personal nature of the conversations recorded. “There’s something about him that people really connect to, and I think that’s because he saw people for who they are, for the individual, in life and also in his work. And that resonates with people.”

Richard Avedon—Moving Image opens tonight at The Cadillac House in New York, and will run until September 30th.

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