Richard Avedon - Biography and Legacy
New York City, New York
San Antonio, Texas
Biography of Richard Avedon
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.
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."
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 cafés, 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The Legacy of Richard Avedon
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.