Progression of Art
Dorian Leigh, Evening Dress by Piguet, Helena Rubinstein apartment, Ile Saint-Louis, Paris, August 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.
Gelatin Silver Print - Gelatin Silver Print
Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955
Shot under an enormous skylight, this photo is a play on contrasts. The pale skin and large ribbon of the famous fashion model, Dovima (Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba) stands out against the elephants' dark gray hide. Dovima's unblemished vibrancy rivals the rough, wrinkled texture of the elephants, pitting age against youth. Her strong, angular upwardly-oriented pose contrasts with the heavy curves and the weighty, downward thrust of the elephants' bodies. Avedon's narrative is a familiar one: the slender Dovima is the mistress of these massive, captive beasts. Beauty and the Beasts is retold in the confines of the studio.
This photograph additionally marks the professional ascendancy of not only Avedon, at the time in his early thirties, but also of the nineteen-year-old Yves Saint Laurent, whose design for Dovima's dress was his first creation for Dior.
Ever the affable perfectionist Avedon famously criticized his photograph, which may well be his most famous, stating, "I look at that picture to this day, and I don't know why I didn't have the sash blowing out to the left to complete the line of the picture. The picture will always be a failure to me because that sash isn't out there."
Gelatin Silver Print - The Richard Avedon Foundation
Avedon captures the famous American contralto, Marian Anderson in the strains of singing with her entire body. Frozen in a moment of intense emotion, Anderson's eyes are closed to allow for complete concentration. The movement of her loosened hair, flowing outward, provides the allusion that her projected voice has the power to move not only emotions but also things in the material world. In fact, the portrait was made in Avedon's studio, where Anderson sang for him unrestrained, informally.
Avedon's goal was to make the act of singing in some way visual through the use of photography. He explained his process and aims: "After looking at the print of the entire negative," he recalled, "I decided to crop it. I made the head much larger in relation to the entire picture area and placed it high and off center. This created a more dynamic composition that emphasizes the power and vitality of the subject."
Anderson represented not only excellence in the arts but also the emerging American civil rights movement. In 1939, she had famously been barred from performing at Constitution Hall in Washington, D.C. by the Daughters of the American Revolution. In response, then First Lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, resigned from the organization. The incident also provided Anderson with almost instant international notoriety. Not long afterwards, thanks to the assistance and support of the President and First Lady, Anderson performed at an Easter Sunday, open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. More than 75,000 people attended the concert and over a million listened to it live on the radio.
Avedon's photo was taken the year in which Anderson, an inspirational symbol of the demand for equal rights for all regardless of race, sang the role of Ulrica in Verdi's Un ballo in maschera at the New York City Metropolitan Opera. The portrait is also a declaration of support by Avedon for the civil rights movement and his stand against racial discrimination.
Gelatin Silver Print - Smithsonian National Museum of American History
Marilyn Monroe, Actress New York
Avedon's portrait reveals a rarely seen contemplative side of the Hollywood legend, Marilyn Monroe. He places her in front of a drab background that frames rather than distracts. The shimmering sequin dress she is wearing alludes to Marilyn's lively onstage personality but not at all to this motionless, introspective woman who seems not to notice the camera at all.
Avedon's study of the infamous siren of the silver screen alludes, possibly ironically, to her profession by including the vestiges of a black border that suggests the image is a single frame of a motion picture - a film still.
For someone who apparently loved to pose, Monroe seems not to have been doing so for this portrait. Avedon described the session, explaining that she had come to the studio and "for hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that's - she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop," he recalled. "And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn't photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no." His description of this moment emphasizes his dedication to the consensual act of portraiture - unlike candid and street photography. Her awareness that she is being photographed with what seems to be a very clear sense of resignation is what makes this portrait so compelling and revealing of her genuine shyness, which was apparently at times almost crippling for Monroe.
Avedon may have emphasized consent but he was also ruthless at times when it came to drawing out his subjects and coaxing or even tricking them into revealing less-than-flattering sides of themselves. Famously, when photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (the former King Edward VIII and Wallis Warfield Simpson), he wanted to cut through their regal composure and he did so by telling the professed dog lovers who adored their own pugs, a deliberate lie: he told them that the taxi he had taken to their appointment had accidentally run over and killed a dog like theirs. When the Windsors responded in horror, he snapped their photo. The resulting photo cut through the facade of the sitters, the usual faces celebrities put on when photographed.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Richard Avedon Foundation
Veruschka, Dress by Bill Blass, New York
In this photograph, German fashion model, Veruschka (Vera Grafin von Lehndorff-Steinort or Veruschka von Lehndorff) stands en pointe like a ballerina while the fluid motion of her dress billowing immodestly high creates an organic, bulbous shape over her otherwise slender body. The effect of the woman's rapid, spontaneous movement is a divergent array of shapes and lines that offer sharp dissent against typical, static 1950s elegance.
In addition to introducing movement into previously static fashion photography, Avedon also introduced spontaneity, which can at times produce exceedingly awkward results. In this image, Veruschka's face, in large measure her stock-in-trade, is barely visible. Her body is distorted, elongated thanks to the extreme angle of the shot so that the leggy young model looks more ungainly than graceful - birdlike, even. While the photo is foremost a fashion plate, it is also a portrait; indeed, one of the most lasting legacies of Avedon was his ability to transcend genre and imbue even commercial photography with aesthetic and narrative interest.
When Avedon photographed models like Veruschka, he often moved along with them, his camera poised, shutter constantly opening and closing. Veruschka, whom Avedon called "the most beautiful woman in the world," was a close collaborator in his development of a new aesthetic.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Museum of Modern Art
Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory, 30 October 1969
In the late 1960s, Andy Warhol's Factory was the epicenter of avant-garde art and culture. This massive group portrait, which features several members of Andy Warhol's edgy, Pop art Factory, is one of the first photos for which Avedon used a large, 8 x 10 inch format camera. The multi-frame composition, which was eventually printed in life-size scale, evokes an Italian Gothic or Renaissance triptych. A line of thirteen Factory members begins with Warhol, who stands at the edge on the far right, as though leaning against the picture frame itself. Every subject in the picture looks directly at the viewer and seems to be posing deliberately.
References to traditional art continue. For instance, the male nudes in the central panel recall a Classical frieze while both their number and their varied poses are quite reminiscent of sculptural and painted representations of the Three Graces. The addition of the naked transvestite standing next to the trio was a radical inversion of the conventional theme as was reinventing the ancient goddesses as male. In the panel on the left, the two nude figures evoke Adam and Eve imagery, yet once again gender is mutable; the serpent takes the form of a man fully dressed - and in symbolic, sinister black, no less - who seems to be on intimate terms with the Adam figure. The picture functions also as a diptych in that the figures on the right are fully dressed while those on the left with only one exception are completely nude, likely symbolic of the original fall from grace and innocence. Which group might be construed as "innocent," however, is quite dubious.
This portrait also, crucially, signals Avedon's endorsement of anti-establishment art and culture as he aligns himself with people who are adamantly outside of the mainstream. The Factory attracted a variety of unconventional characters that included actor Joe Dallesandro and director Paul Morrissey, both of whom appear in the left panel and reappear again in the right panel fully clothed. In a final frame that was ultimately cut, Avedon depicted Warhol videotaping the actor, Joe Dallesandro, in a post-coital state - a theme that is certainly relevant to the fall from grace, the first incidence of sin. The awkward, bawdy, and audacious image encapsulates the artistic subculture of the 1960s and, in the larger context, the cultural and sexual revolution.
Gelatin Silver Print - The Tate
Jacob Israel Avedon, Sarasota, Florida, August 25th 1973
For the last six years of his father's life, Avedon chronicled the deterioration of his health and, arguably, his spirit in many photos. He began taking portraits of his father, Jacob Israel Avedon, when he visited him at the home where he had relocated in Sarasota, Florida. A few years after Avedon began the series, Jacob was diagnosed with cancer, to which he finally succumbed in 1973.
In this deeply unsettling image Avedon's father wears an expression of deep distress or anxiety. Stiff and awkward in a somber black suit, the elder Avedon is set against a stark, white background into which his head seems to dissolve. The photo is not idealizing but, rather, captures the uncertainty and fear both father and son must have been experiencing. Avedon cited Viennese Expressionist painter, Egon Schiele, as a major influence for him where portraiture was concerned. He explained that Schiele's portraits contained a level of "candor and complexity" that was far removed from, as Avedon said, "the tradition of flattery and lies in portrait-making."
In a letter to his father Avedon penned around the time he produced this series of portraits of the elderly Jacob Avedon, he wrote, "What I love about you is that you're in your eighties, you're hungry and avid for life...and all the complex things about you, and that's who I want to photograph." The photos certainly contrast his portraits of people of great power and celebrity.
In the 1970s, Avedon became interested in trying to articulate the passage of time through the use of photography. There were no extant photos of him and his father from Avedon's childhood, so in part the series is symbolic of an effort to connect with Jacob and document that interaction. "The photographs of my father," confided Avedon, "making those photographs had nothing to do with the art of photography. It had to do with my way of trying to reach him."
Only a few years later, however, he reconsidered what might have also underlaid the deeply personal project. Avedon reflected, "It later occurred me, years later, that photographing him was an act of hostility. Shooting, killing him with my camera, watching him die with my camera... could it possibly be that I was telling myself that it was about love and connection, and it was really a kind of murder?" The portrait of his father pushes our understanding of the shifting personal boundaries that come along with the act of photographing.
Ultimately, in 1974, Avedon selected eight photos from the series for a solo exhibition titled, "Jacob Israel Avedon," at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. On the poignant intimacy of the work, John Szarkowski, the Director of the Department of Photography at the time of the show, remarked, "Photographic portraiture, pursued with the high ambition that tradition suggests, is an enormously difficult art.. In these circumstances, only acceptance and trust can succeed. Richard Avedon's portraits of his father are the deeply moving record of just such a success."
Platinum Palladium Print - The Richard Avedon Foundation
Boyd Fortin, Thirteen-Year-Old Rattlesnake Skinner, Sweetwater, Texas
After seeing a photo that Avedon took of a ranch hand in Montana, The Amon Carter Museum asked him to continue making photos of the rural population under the sponsorship of the Museum. Avedon agreed and subsequently traveled from Montana to Texas between 1979 and 1984 taking hundreds of photographs for the project.
The many portraits he produced are largely of poor and working class people from the American West. The subject of this particular portrait is a young teenager, Boyd Fortin, from Sweetwater, Texas. As the title of the photograph indicates, Fortin is a "rattlesnake skinner," although whether it is a vocation or hobby and with what frequency he engages with it is not made clear. With bloodstained hands Fortin holds a dead snake whose trailing intestines stain the white apron he is wearing with gore. The white background of the portrait is spotless in contrast. The boy's youthful, almost angelic face is marred with a scowl whether as a result of concentration or disgust - it isn't clear.
Apparently, Avedon's encounter with Fortin, who was assisting his father in the act of skinning one of the notorious, poisonous Diamondback rattlesnakes of the region, was quite spontaneous. Young Fortin calls to mind heroic images from Classical mythology of Hercules battling the Hydra or Apollo and the Python. Or perhaps is a Wild West version of Adam and the serpent.
Avedon was both praised and criticized for this series, which presents inhabitants of the American West quite selectively and anything but thoroughly. Providing an accurate and exhaustive photographic catalog of the people of the West could hardly have been Avedon's goal ultimately. Rather, these snapshots of sometimes deeply eccentric humans are the photographers own works of fiction. Indeed, in response to criticism of the series, Avedon responded, "It isn't about the West. I could have done this anywhere in the world. The portraits are about people - all my work is - forget the West. The work is called In the American West, not The American West."
Gelatin Silver Print - Ruedi Hofmann
Francis Bacon, artist, Paris, April 11, 1979
In this double portrait of his friend, the painter Francis Bacon, Avedon placed a pair of negatives shot during the same session side-by-side. Avedon is probably referring directly to a diptych made the same year by Bacon, which featured two studies of himself for a self-portrait he was working on. Further, Bacon famously preferred working in series, with the triptych his most favored format for a decade before moving on to create works in series of as many of ten individual pieces. He once said, "I see images in series."
Bacon's self-portraits have been regarded as some of the most successful works in his oeuvre. He was, argues critic, art historian, and Bacon biographer Michael Peppiatt, "never more brilliant, more incisive or more ferocious [as] when it came to depicting himself." Like his friend the painter, Avedon produced unflinching portraits, close-ups that confront the viewer first and foremost in an almost visceral way even before the intellect has a chance to respond.
In this diptych, Bacon is featured in a bust portrait on the left and nearly to the waist on the right. Because of the cropping, which seems somewhat haphazard rather than skillfully planned and completed, the pensive painter seems to be stepping into or out of his opposing side or self. Hands to his lips in the image on the right, he seems to be stopping himself from speaking as though he is reluctant to disclose too much information. This speaks quite directly to one of Avedon's preoccupations where portraiture was concerned: do portraits have the capacity to reveal something deep and profound about a subject. Another of Bacon's friends, the writer Milan Kundera, wrote on the subject, "Of course we are not certain that the depths really do harbor something--but whatever it may be, we each of us have in us that brutal gesture, that hand movement that roughs up another person's face in the hope of finding, in it and behind it, a thing that is hidden there."
While Kundera was referring to the painting style of Bacon, which was notoriously expressive, almost cruel in its willingness to reveal what lay beneath the surface of a subject's public self, including his own countenance, it might just as easily refer to Avedon's portraits, including these images of Bacon, which draw in close and with unforgiving light reveal every detail of the subject's face as if to get at what's beneath simply requires a kind of ruthless crossing of personal boundaries.
Avedon believed that this process of revealing more of a sitter's personality was a collaborative affair. He once remarked in this regard, "A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he's being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he's wearing or how he looks. He's implicated in what's happening, and he has a certain real power over the result."
Gelatin silver print - J. Paul Getty Museum