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Richard Avedon

American Photographer

Movements and Styles: Fashion Photography, Modern Photography

Born: May 15, 1923 - New York City, New York

Died: October 1, 2004 - San Antonio, Texas

Richard Avedon Timeline

Quotes

"My job was to do identity photographs. I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer."
Richard Avedon
"My photographs don't go below the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues."
Richard Avedon
"All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."
Richard Avedon
"I think I do photograph what I'm afraid of, I think I have photographed what I was afraid of. Things I couldn't deal with, without the camera. My father's death, madness, and when I was young, women."
Richard Avedon
"One of the most powerful parts about movement, is that it's a constant surprise. You don't know what the fabric is going to do, what the hair is going to do, you can control it to a certain degree and then there's a surprise."
Richard Avedon
"When I photograph movement, I have to anticipate that by the time it's happened, it's too late to photograph it."
Richard Avedon
"It's just strange to me that anyone would ever think that a work of art shouldn't be disturbing, or shouldn't be invasive. I mean, that's the property of a work of art, that's the arena of a work of art is to disturb, to make you think, to make you feel."
Richard Avedon
"It's not the camera that makes a good picture, but the eye and the mind of the photographer."
Richard Avedon
"Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me."
Richard Avedon

"A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion."

Richard Avedon Signature

Synopsis

In a gesture of supreme, youthful confidence, Richard Avedon did away with the standard trope of statue-like, frozen-in-time models of conventional fashion photography. Instead the exuberant young photographer who legendarily never stood still, enlivened his models and, most importantly, showed their human side, flaws and all. He is probably best known, however, for his arresting, black-and-white and often large-format portraits of people, whether celebrities or unknowns, which are as much psychological studies as physical ones. Ranging between the commercial work he did as a fashion photographer and the ground-breaking fine art portraiture, the breadth and creativity of Avedon's body of work has made him one of the most influential photographers of the twentieth century. His photographs, claimed the New York Times, "helped define America's image of style and beauty and culture" since the 1950s. While he didn't design the clothes that Veruschka or Twiggy or Brooke Shields wore, he created innovative contexts for both model and wearer, fashioning visually arresting, memorable images that altered the course of many facets of American culture.

Key Ideas

Avedon's style of fashion photography brought a refreshing, humanistic quality to the genre. Avedon took models that seemed to be somewhat frozen in time and gave them vigor, personalities, and even flaws. There is often an underlying narrative as he realized that fashion photography wasn't simply about selling a product, but rather it was the overall spirit of the image that the viewer/consumer desired.
Avedon's mastery of portraiture had as much to do with his rapport with his subjects as his technical ability or sense of aesthetics. His customary practice was to establish an intimacy between himself and his sitter, gaining a subject's trust became an art form in itself for Avedon. His deeply candid, emotive portraits, often photographed and printed in large format, helped reconfigure photography as an expressive art form.
Avedon's portraits are most often unsettling and in many cases deeply disturbing. His subjects take up much of the composition, sometimes even exceeding its boundaries and thus seeming inexplicably cropped. The effect of the close-up is not only to provide details, including physical imperfections, but to also make the viewer feel as if they are intruding into the sitter's private, personal space. Additionally, Avedon's signature white backgrounds offer no context; there is no story but that of the face and body of the subject. Usually the portraits are black-and-white, which also seems less flattering or forgiving. In Avedon's view, color creates an unwanted distraction from the frank visual scrutiny of a sitter.

Most Important Art

Richard Avedon Famous Art

Dorian Leigh, Evening Dress by Piguet, Helena Rubinstein apartment, Ile Saint-Louis, Paris, August 1949 (1949)

While technically a fashion photo, with this image, Avedon stages an unfolding story of a woman regarding herself in a bathroom mirror. The viewer is given private access to fashion model, Dorian Leigh, who stands before a mirror in a brightly lit powder room, absorbed in her own looks. The photo creates a fiction in which the subject, oblivious to the fact that she is being observed, scrutinizes her appearance as the last stage of preparation for attending a formal event.

Leigh's pose is anything but graceful as she leans in toward the mirror to get a closer look. The photo is reminiscent of the backstage-at-the-ballet and other intimate paintings and drawings by Degas, whose ballerinas, like Avedon's models, more often appeared ungainly as he depicted them just one gesture removed from graceful.

Avedon's unconventional approach to fashion photography was in part an aesthetic departure from tradition and in part a rather ingenious understanding not merely of the marketing of haute couture but of desire itself. He was all too aware that selling a tale of glamour was just as important as selling the product itself. Leigh is far from the stoic model of earlier fashion photography.

Avedon was not merely a photographer; he was also a choreographer and theatrical director of sorts (Avedon had an active interest in theater all of his life). As a consequence, a fashion photo could easily resemble a scene from a film. He described the process he used for creating fashion photos with such cinematic flair, which began with him drawing-out the living, breathing woman beneath the beautiful veneer: "Take a model you're drawn to, and then imagine her as a woman." He believed that models became beautiful when they were doing something besides trying to be beautiful - smoking, drinking, walking, or gazing intently into a mirror.
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Richard Avedon Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood

Born in New York City, Richard Avedon, always known by family and friends as "Dick," was the son of Russian-Jewish parents, Jacob and Anna Avedon. His exposure to fashion and photography began at an early age. Since his father owned a women's specialty clothing store on Fifth Avenue, he was often present when representatives from upscale fashion magazines such as Harper's Bazaar, Vanity Fair, and Vogue visited each month to discuss couture.

Avedon's father was instrumental in cultivating his growing interest in photography - particularly fashion photography. One episode from his childhood stood out in particular when recalling the early influence of his father: "One evening my father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the store windows. In front of the Plaza Hotel, I saw a bald man with a camera posing a very beautiful woman against a tree. He lifted his head," remembered Avedon, "adjusted her dress a little bit and took some photographs. Later, I saw the picture in Harper's Bazaar. I didn't understand why he'd taken her against that tree until I got to Paris a few years later: the tree in front of the Plaza had that same peeling bark you see all over the Champs-Elysees." That defining moment and the accompanying imagery instilled in the budding young photographer a sense of the grandeur of haute couture, the value of the photography, and how the setting could contribute so indelibly to an image's impact.

Equipped with his Kodak Box Brownie camera, he began taking pictures of his younger sister, Louise, his first model. Unfortunately, during her adolescence, Louise struggled with mental health issues; she eventually began psychiatric treatment and was ultimately diagnosed with schizophrenia.

An early infatuation with theater was inspired by his mother who encouraged his interest in the arts. At the age of twelve, he joined the Young Men's Hebrew Association Camera Club. His attraction to poetry rivaled his avid interest in photography and he began editing his high school's literary and art magazine alongside the soon-to-be famous American novelist, James Baldwin. Avedon, having won a citywide poetry contest for high school students, was named Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools during his senior year at DeWiit Clinton High School.

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Richard Avedon Biography Continues

Following high school, Avedon went to Columbia University, where he studied poetry and philosophy. He dropped out of college, however, a year later in order to join the U.S. Merchant Marines, where he served as a photographer - Photographer's Mate Second Class - making portraits of sailors for their military identification cards using his own Rolleiflex twin-lens camera. He was in the Merchant Marines from 1942 to 1944, having also worked as a photographer for the MM's magazine, The Helm, which actually published several of his sailor portraits. Avedon described his experience as prophetic, explaining, "My job was to identify photographs. I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer."

Early Period

Richard Avedon Biography

After the end of World War II, Avedon returned home with plans to become a professional photographer. Using some of his photos published in The Helm, he convinced the hugely influential art director for Harper's Bazaar, Alexey Brodovich, to let him study photography at his Design Laboratory of the New School of Social Research. Avedon's photography was heavily influenced by Brodovitch, who taught his young pupil that commercial and editorial work should never be approached as either tedious or mundane. Rather, it was the photographer's responsibility to be creative and bring fresh ideas to the shoot regardless of the subject matter. The mentor-pupil relationship between Brodovitch and Avedon ultimately transformed into a loyal and supportive friendship.

In 1944, Avedon married model and actress, Doe Nowell, and in 1945 he setup his own photography studio and began work as a freelance photographer. With the help of Brodovitch, he was hired by Harper's Bazaar, joining the staff as its youngest member. That same year, two of his photographs were featured in Harper's Bazaar's "Junior Bazaar," which launched what was to become his long and extremely successful career in fashion photography.

Avedon's early career coincided with the dawn of street photography and the invention of the 35mm camera. He concluded, however, that the arena of street photography and the decisive moment belonged to photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, Lisette Model, and others but he nevertheless applied some of street photography's core principles to the work he produced for Harper's Bazaar, particularly the elements of spontaneity and the candid shot.

Just as Christian Dior was revolutionizing haute couture beginning in 1947, Avedon's moment came when he was asked to accompany Harper's editor, Carmel Snow, to Paris to photograph the great couturier's second and equally groundbreaking show. Intimidated by the import of the assignment but determined to exude confidence, his work in Paris that year set him apart from the fashion photographers like Horst P. Horst and Cecil Beaton, who had defined the medium before him. Avedon later recalled his nervousness at initially receiving the assignment. The prospect of interacting with famous models had terrified him. He explained, "I couldn't face those extraordinary women who were the famous models, at the time. But, what I did, was photograph what I enjoyed."

Avedon made an especially remarkable fashion plate set in a Parisian square and his free-spirited approach revolutionized the fashion photography field. Women came alive in his photos of interacting with men on the street, talking to street performers, sitting at caf├ęs, and captured in the midst of writing. The photographs taken in Paris from 1947-49 marked the moment when Avedon was recognized by influential members of the New York fashion photography scene.

In 1949, Life magazine commissioned Avedon to produce a series of photographs documenting daily life in New York City; an entire issue of the magazine would be devoted to the series for which he received $25,000 advance. In the spirit of the greats like Cartier-Bresson, Avedon hit the streets, regarding the assignment as an opportunity to experiment with a completely different genre, one that was closer to journalism than the commercial work that he produced. However, after taking hundreds of photos, Avedon concluded that he simply wasn't suited to such work; he returned the advance and stored his negatives until 1992.

Mature Period

Richard Avedon Photo

One year after his divorce from Doe in 1949, Avedon's sister, Louise, experienced a serious relapse. She had been working in Avedon's studio but suddenly stopped speaking and became nearly catatonic. She was hospitalized and spent the remainder of her life in mental institutions before she died at age 42. In 1951, Avedon met and married Evelyn Franklin, who gave birth to John in 1952.

Ironically, it was his first marriage on which the film, Funny Face (1957), was loosely based. In the spirit of Pygmalion, Fred Astaire plays a fashion photographer (Avedon) and Audrey Hepburn stars as the model (Doe), he creates and then falls in love with. Avedon was hired as a visual consultant for the film and many of his photographs may be seen in the movie. The same year, he produced his famous homage to his fashion photography predecessor, Martin Munkasci, who had created a memorable shot of a well-dressed model grasping an umbrella and gleefully jumping over a puddle in her high heels. Avedon's recreation in 1957 features model Carmen dell'Orefice wearing clothing designed by Pierre Cardin and leaping across a very small puddle before a backdrop of familiar Parisian buildings.

Avedon was foremost a portrait photographer and his subjects ranged broadly: from members of the Daughters of the American Revolution to Hollywood legends like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, Audrey Hepburn and later, Brooke Shields. He was a photographer of, and friend to, artistic greats like Pablo Picasso, Georgia O'Keeffe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Andy Warhol and his work often pays homage to artistic and literary influences that are extremely diverse. His penchant for realism, delving into the souls of his sitters, was something Avedon had acquired from favorite literary sources like Beckett, Proust, and Chekhov and artistic influences like Goya, whose unflinching honesty Avedon found incomparable and deeply compelling, Modigliani who portrayed his figures in large scale, and Soutine, who used raw, rough texture to reveal the interior lives of his subjects.

For Avedon's first book, Observations, published in 1959, the well-known American writer, Truman Capote wrote the essay and the faces of many famous and important people are featured in its pages. Shortly after the book's publication, Diane Arbus is said to have remarked about Avedon, "Everybody who entered Avedon's studio was some kind of star." In short, even if the sitter was not famous going into Avedon's studio, they would become famous on the way out.

Richard Avedon Portrait

In the early 1960s, a close working relationship developed between Avedon and Marvin Israel, a New York bohemian and graphic designer. As the fashion editor for Harper's Bazaar in the early 1960s, he worked closely with Avedon and in 1964 the duo published Avedon's second book, Nothing Personal. The book represents one of his more adventurous projects: making portraits while traveling through the American South. The images of civil rights demonstrations and racists expose the deep inequality in the U.S. His subjects range the Black Panthers, American soldiers, and Vietnamese napalm victims to inpatients residing in a Louisiana State Hospital. In terms of the latter, Avedon's sister was surely an inspiration; his images are both poignant and shocking, revealing of the appalling conditions to which people with mental illness, without resources, were subjected to at that time. Following his stint guest-editing the April 1965 issue of Harper's Bazaar, Avedon quit the magazine after facing a storm of criticism over his collaboration with models of color. He left Harpers for Vogue, with whom he signed an unprecedented $1 million contract. By this time, the Avedon "look" was fully established and he remained at Vogue for the next twenty years.

In 1969, Avedon's engagement with contemporary politics, particularly the anti-war movement, inspired him to produce a series of portraits of the anti-war activist group, the Chicago Seven, who had been charged by the federal government with conspiracy and other alleged crimes relating to anti-Vietnam War protests. On the opening night of the exhibition of the photos, students gathered in the room where the work was on display to demonstrate their support for the anti-war movement. In 1971, he traveled to Vietnam as a U.S. war correspondent, participated in an anti-war demonstration at the U.S. Capitol building, and was arrested and jailed for civil disobedience.

In 1974, Avedon was diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of the lining of the heart. Following his release from the hospital, he put a hospital bed in his New York Studio and directed Bloomingdale's catalogue fashion models from it. A year earlier, on September 1, 1973, Avedon's father had died just before his 84th birthday. For six years prior to his father's death, Avedon had photographed him frequently and eventually produced a series, which yielded a book and a short-running exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City in 1974.

Later Period

In 1981, Avedon produced another one of his most memorable and controversial portraits. The heralded actress, Nastassja Kinski, at the time best known for her starring role in Roman Polanski's Academy Award-winning film Tess (1979), posed nude for Avedon. Evidently, the pregnant Nastassja lay on the cold concrete floor of the studio for nearly two hours while an enormous Burmese Python crawled over her body, eventually slithering close enough to stick out its tongue near her ear, providing Avedon with what he felt was the ideal shot. The portrait was printed both in black-and-white (in a limited series) and also in full color as a poster of which over two million copies sold.

Richard Avedon Portrait

Avedon's interest in fashion photography diminished through the years and in 1988 he made the decision to leave Vogue. Between 1985 and 1992, his fashion photography appeared almost exclusively in the French literary and art magazine Egoiste.

In 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Avedon traveled to Germany, intent on photographing the first German New Year's party at the Brandenburg Gate since the unification. What he encountered was not an atmosphere of celebration but, rather one of violence and unease. The series of photographs documenting that experience differed radically from his usual work: the shots are frenetic and chaotic and feature a number of close-ups of faces, emphasizing that, despite their journalistic overtones, portraiture was still at the center of Avedon's photographic impulse. In 1992, Avedon began working as The New Yorker's staff photographer, which provided him with the opportunity to reinvigorate his formal style and to inject it with a heightened level of theatricality. That fall, he began teaching a series of master classes under the auspices of the International Center for Photography in New York. Additionally, he occasionally produced innovative advertising work for print and broadcast for brands like Calvin Klein, Versace, and Revlon. While on assignment in San Antonio, for The New Yorker, Avedon died of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 1, 2004.


Legacy

Avedon's brash, youthful, and iconoclastic entry into the genre of fashion photography signaled a point of no return: no longer were fashion models frozen in time, statue-like, and imperturbable. Rather, they were living, moving, imperfect beings however beautiful. He imposed simple narratives so that the viewers and consumers could invest as much in a story about a garment (and its model) as the garment itself. His spare portraits, most often in black-and-white, large format, and often blurred in portions, explored a diverse range of themes such as sexuality, violence, and death. The images, whether of celebrities or world leaders or eccentrics were as much about his sitters' interior lives as hinted at by their external appearances. Avedon's almost ruthless approach to portraiture paved the way for the often disturbing black-and-white, "pseudo-documentary photography" featuring the marginalized and the misfits by his friend, Diane Arbus, the gritty explorations of late 1970s punk culture personalities of Nan Goldin, or the photographs of Herb Ritts, which straddle the boundaries between fashion and fine art.

Influences and Connections

Influences on artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Influenced by artist

Artists, Friends, Movements

Richard Avedon
Interactive chart with Richard Avedon's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
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View Influences Chart

Artists

Martin MunkacsiMartin Munkacsi
Henri Cartier-BressonHenri Cartier-Bresson

Friends

Alexey BrodovitchAlexey Brodovitch
Diane ArbusDiane Arbus

Movements

Modern PhotographyModern Photography
Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon
Years Worked: 1944 - 2004

Artists

Cindy ShermanCindy Sherman
Steven MeiselSteven Meisel
Annie LeibovitzAnnie Leibovitz
Herb RittsHerb Ritts

Friends

Diane ArbusDiane Arbus

Movements

Modern PhotographyModern Photography

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Content compiled and written by Jackie Meade

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jackie Meade
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Richard Avedon

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light ► 0:00 Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light

A PBS series, American Master's episode on Avedon. Directed by Helen Whitney.
views

Charlie Rose (1993) ► 54:33 Charlie Rose (1993)

Interview about Avedon's book, An Autobiography
6k views

Charlie Rose (1995) ► 9:58 Charlie Rose (1995)

On Avedon's work with The New Yorker and fashion
861 views

Charlie Rose (1999) ► 24:47 Charlie Rose (1999)

Discussion of Avedon's life work
704 views

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

photographs

Observations (1959) Recomended resource

First book of photography with essay by Truman Capote

Nothing Personal (1964)

Photographs and text by James Baldwin

Portraits 1944-1947 (1978)

Richard Avedon Photographs and essay by Harold Rosenberg

In the American West (1985)

A commissioned work from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, with text by Laura Wilson

More Interesting Books about Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon Foundation Recomended resource

Richard Avedon Mobile App Recomended resource

In-depth descriptions of his print types and archival material and includes hundreds of images illustrating the arc of this extraordinary photographer's career

International Center of Photography

The National Portrait Gallery

An exhibition pamphlet with short analysis of select work, biography, and learning resources

More Interesting Websites about Richard Avedon
A Woman Entering a Taxi in the Rain Recomended resource

By Winthrop Sargeant
The New Yorker
1958

On Richard Avedon: Truman Capote's 1959 Essay on the Master Photographer

By Alex Frank
Vogue
2014

How Avedon Blurred His Own Image

By Cathy Horyn
The New York Times
2009

Avedon, Unsigned Recomended resource

By Richard B. Woodward
The New York Times
2016

transcripts

PBS Newshour

An interview with Avedon about his portraits

in pop culture

Funny Face (1957)

A film staring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn loosely based on the career of Richard Avedon. A number of Avedon's photographs can be seen in the film

Lego Figure of Boyd Fortin

A Lego recreation of Richard Avedon's 1979 photograph of "Boyd Fortin, thirteen years old, Sweetwater, Texas, 1979"

More Interesting Resources about Richard Avedon
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