The contribution which Richard Avedon (1923-2004) made to photography, particularly fashion and portraiture, was amongst the most far-reaching and influential of any of his contemporaries. The elegance, inventiveness and probing nature of his eye meant that he was in constant demand from the 1940s through to his death in 2004. Equal in stature to his great rival, Irving Penn, Avedon played a key role in developing and defining American visual culture throughout the period.
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Richard Avedon was born on 15 May 1923, in New York. His father was the proprietor of Avedon’s, a department store on Fifth Avenue, and his mother was from a family of clothing manufacturers, so he was brought up in a wealthy, cultured and urbane environment. As a child he was obsessed with fashion magazines, and would stick clippings from them onto the walls of his bedroom.
He was educated at De Witt Clinton High School, and then Columbia University where he studied Philosophy. In 1942 he joined the Merchant Marine, and was assigned to the photographic department, where he honed the skills learned in camera clubs as an adolescent. In taking thousands of portraits of sailors, he also learned skills that would aid him in many aspects of his future career as a portraitist.
In 1944, Avedon enrolled at the New School for Social Research in New York, in the class of Alexey Brodovitch, the designer, and art director of Harper’s Bazaar (1938-58). Brodovitch and Avedon became close, and the latter’s photographs soon began appearing in Junior Bazaar and then, in 1946, in Harper’s Bazaar itself. This was the beginning of a nineteen-year career with the magazine, that catapulted Avedon to the heights of fame as a photographer. With the close patronage of Brodovitch and Carmel Snow, the magazine’s editor, Avedon was given many of the most desirable jobs.
Following the lead of earlier photographers such as the Hungarian, Martin Munkásci, Avedon took his models out of the studio and onto the streets. Many of his images from this Harper’s Bazaar period were taken in and around Paris, with his models placed in glamorous, stereotypical French environments such as cafes and nightclubs. His inimitable eye and daring wit created numerous important fashion photographs. For example, Dovima with Elephants, Paris, 1955, features Dovima, the most sought after model of her day, in a floor-length Dior gown, posing elegantly (and bravely) in front of three circus elephants. This dramatic, and graceful, image is typical of Avedon’s best work in which he goes to extra lengths to find new and innovative ways of photographing fashion. By 1957, Avedon had become so well-known that Hollywood used him as inspiration for the character, Dick Avery, in the film, Funny Face. Featuring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, Avery was played by Astaire, and the film was about Avedon’s early career.
In 1965 Avedon left Harper’s Bazaar for Vogue, where he worked under the other famous Russian art-director, Alexander Liberman. He was only contracted to the magazine for a few years, but continued taking cover pictures for them until the late 1980s. He also found time to shoot advertising campaigns for Versace and Calvin Klein, amongst many others.
Whilst becoming one of the most significant fashion photographers of his day, Avedon also simultaneously developed as a portrait photographer, creating some of the most famous celebrity and documentary portraits of the 20th century. Avedon understood the nature of fame, and endeared himself in allowing his famous sitters to play up to his camera. A great theatre lover and something of a celebrity himself, Avedon had great insight into both performance and public image, and allowed his sitters to be the people they wanted to be. His style in the studio was one of intense concentration, gently coaxing and directing his sitter as they went about playing their part. Many of his early triumphs were published in his first book, Observations (1959) which contained a foreword by Truman Capote.
Although Avedon used the outside for much of his fashion work, he preferred the studio for portraiture, like Irving Penn. Unlike Penn, however, who used his mundane and grubby studio environment to present a familiar sitter in unfamiliar surroundings, Avedon relied heavily on white backgrounds. It became his signature look, and went on to influence many future portrait photographers, from David Bailey to Terry Richardson.
Avedon photographed most of the famous names and faces of his time, including Buster Keaton, Judy Garland, Audrey Hepburn, Marlon Brando, The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Rudolf Nureyev, Brigitte Bardot, Fred Astaire, Cary Grant, John Huston, and a whole host of celebrated personalities throughout the six decades in which he worked, many of these portraits becoming the iconic image of the person concerned.
Avedon was interested in fame, but he was also interested in people. Whilst pursuing a successful career as a fashion and portrait photographer, he became increasingly involved in projects to photograph and record the faces of others, particularly the dispossessed and disadvantaged. His early projects included photographing the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s, and documenting the long death of his father from cancer between 1969 and 1973. In 1978, he was asked by the director of the Amon Carter Museum in Texas to photograph a series of portraits for an exhibition to be called, The American West. Over the next six years, Avedon took frequent time out of his usual schedule to travel around the western states of the USA in search of subjects. This project confirmed Avedon’s status as a great documentary portraitist.
Following the tradition of earlier photographers like Dorothea Lange and Walker Evans, Avedon was drawn to the harsh realities of everyday life suffered by drifters, factory workers, coal miners and other working-class people in the rural United States. Using a large-format, 10 x 8 inch plate camera, Avedon took over 17000 photographs of everyday people in their natural state, without makeup or props, and always in front of a white background. The final exhibition, shown at the Amon Carter Museum in 1985, contained 124 over-sized prints that had been chosen from the larger selection. The exhibition was highly controversial as it seemed to present a depressing view of America, and was thus accused of being unrepresentative. Regardless of this, Avedon’s portraits of these people, some filthy dirty and malnourished, bedraggled and lost, others beautiful and full of youthful defiance, were a document of an American underclass, the likes of which had not been recorded since the Great-Depression.
In 1992, Richard Avedon was hired by The New Yorker as its “staff” photographer. A lowly job-title for such a celebrated photographer, it belied a more significant opportunity. Avedon was ostensibly given free reign to photograph whoever and whatever he wanted, and he seized the chance with customary zeal. Over the next decade, he photographed portraits of Saul Bellow, Hillary Clinton, Stephen Sondheim and others, whilst trawling his archive to give the magazine unseen images of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn and W H Auden.
Richard Avedon died on 1 October 2004, from a brain haemorrhage. He was married twice, first to the model, Dorcas Nowell (1944-49), and then to Evelyn Franklin (1951-2004). Together they had one son, John, and four grandchildren.