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Alexey Brodovitch

Russian-American Photographer, Designer, and Teacher

Alexey Brodovitch Photo

Born: May 1, 1889 - Ogolichi, Russian Empire (now Belarus)

Died: April15, 1971 - Le Thor, France

"Astonish me."

Summary

The Russian Alexey Brodovitch began his career in the 1920s in Paris as a designer before going on to revolutionize fashion photography and magazine publications in America. In a parallel career, he taught and mentored a number of leading fashion photographers. Beginning his American life as a teacher at the Philadelphia College of Art in 1930, he taught his "Design Laboratory" workshops into the 1950s. Conceived of as "an experimental laboratory," the workshop emphasized innovative learning from "accidents" and "mistakes" as a way of working through practical design problems. Posing questions such as, "Could this line be better? Could it be like, for example, Cocteau?," Brodovitch encouraged in his students a real-life, interactive approach to design that explored divergent, and often contradictory, processes. His courses formed the foundation for future design education and, as such, his legacy has been passed down through future generations of designers and photographers.

Over the same period of time, Brodovitch emerged as a bona-fide design icon through his role of art director at Harper's Bazaar, a post he held between 1934 and 1958. Indeed, Brodovitch's modernist sense of design revolutionized the fashion magazine format and introduced techniques that would become the blueprint for subsequent publications. As Irving Penn put it, "All designers, all photographers, all art directors, whether they know it or not, are students of Alexey Brodovitch." Pioneering the use of text and image in dual page layouts; the use of color photography; cropped and off center images; and the extensive use of white space, his radical approach came to be adopted as the industry standard. Indeed, as art director at Harper's, Brodovitch was directly responsible for importing European modernism into mainstream American publications, giving fashion assignments to prominent avant-gardists including Man Ray, Jean Cocteau, Raoul Dufy, Marc Chagall and A.M. Cassandre.

Brodovitch is also credited with liberating the fashion model from the studio and his decision to shoot outdoors, and to shoot models engaged in ordinary activities, informed a number of photographic trends including the "American" look of the 1930s to the "action shots" of the 1950s. Through his work in the magazine industry, he discovered and mentored a number of photographers who would go on to shape the direction of photographic history, including Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, and Lisette Model. Outside of fashion photography, meanwhile, his grainy, high-contrast, action photographs of ballet performances were early forerunners of the snapshot aesthetic that came to dominate professional photography in the second half of the 20th century.

Key Ideas

Having honed his trade as a graphic and theatrical designer for Sergei Diaghilev's ground breaking Ballet Russe in the 1920s, Brodovitch transferred the audacity and spontaneity associated with that famous ensemble of performers, composers, and artists to the conservative (by comparison) American fashion magazine format.
Dedicated to exploring the aesthetic relationship between text and image, Brodovitch revolutionized the world of typographic design and tonal composition through his "white space" technique; whereby the printed word takes on an aesthetic character to match that of the photographic image.
Brodovitch saw the "duel-page-spread" as being analogous to the fluidity of a musical composition. Refusing to stick to any tried and tested formula, Brodovitch experimented with techniques that would see photographic and typographic design become one (much like dance partners indeed).
Brodovitch is credited with freeing fashion photography from the confines of the studio. Taking his lead from photojournalism, he promoted the so-called "action shot" that used real locations and positioned modern American women within their lived environments. Mentees such as Richard Avedon and Robert Frank took their cameras onto the streets and encouraged their models to engage spontaneously with their natural habitat.

Alexey Brodovitch Artist Overview Page

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