I first met Carmen about four years ago when she came to the opening of David Downtown’s exhibition in the Fashion Space Gallery here at the College. It was hard not to be awestruck- a reaction I now recognise when people are first introduced to her. I knew the facts of her life and had seen the photographs that comprehensively document most of her life, but I wasn’t prepared for the mesmerising combination of her beauty and personality. We all hope our lives are positively shaped by our experiences, that we become more generous not less and more beautiful and not withered by either age or events. To meet Carmen is to see how that might be possible.
The facts of Carmen’s experience and work are in themselves extraordinary. At 15 she appeared on the front of Vogue October 1947, she has graced the cover five more times. She has worked with the most definitive photographers of the last 66 years, including Irving Penn, Cecil Beaton, Richard Avedon, Horst P Horst and John Rawlings and she has fronted 14 cosmetics campaigns. Briefly retired in 1966, she returned to work for her ‘second phase’. This time she worked with photographers of old such as Richard Avedon as well as a new generation including Nick Knight and Helmut Newton. By then the industry had changed and models were no longer just ‘coathangers’, but professionals in their own right, from whom photographers gleaned inspiration. This is where Carmen’s contribution to the industry becomes so clear. She is able to translate and transform the clothes and the vision of the photographer creating a reality that is more than a fashion shoot. Carmen understands and visualises what the photographer is trying to achieve, she understands the shapes, the structure, the setting, the lighting, how the hair, make up and clothes combine with her physical reality to create the image.
This makes her work and contribution to the history of modelling and fashion photography so significant. She described her thought process behind the photograph very clearly: “I’ve always appreciated what their job is, what they’re trying to do. I’m just part of the picture. I’m not the picture. There’s so much that goes into it, you know? It’s got to be a team effort. Think about family. Think about living. My goal in life is to do better than Do No Harm. How do you do some good that really hits the mark? Well, you start one smile at a time, one overt little thing to make another human being know that you notice them, that you feel for them, that you’re happy when they’re happy.” (to Jeanne Beker in 1989 for Fashion TV)