Richard Avedon

Recognition

1973 AIGA Medal

Born

1923, New York, New York

Deceased

2004, San Antonio, Florida

Recognized for his superb contribution to graphic design through photography

The magazine was Richard Avedon’s milieu. The widely idolized photographer invented new ways of presenting fashion, celebrity profiles, and even the advertisements between stories. He was a rare artist who crossed the borders of editorial, commercial, and fine art photography without losing his soul. From his training with legendary Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch (1987 AIGA Medalist), Avedon always worked in tandem with graphic designers, imbibing their acuity for details, scale, contrast—later in his career, even insisting on co-designing the layout of his books and exhibitions.

Born to Russian Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1923, Avedon was introduced to the Kodak Brownie box camera at age nine and was almost never without a camera since. His sister Louise was his first model and his mother Anna impressed on him the art of image-making. For their family portraits, Avedon recalls posing with borrowed dogs and standing in front of grand buildings in New York City that they didn’t own. “That was all keeping up the front,” he explained. His father Jacob, who rose from poverty to become a proprietor of a women’s clothing store on Fifth Avenue, schooled him about work ethic. “There was the battle and the front,” says Avedon.

Avedon’s big break happened at Harper’s Bazaar in 1946. After dropping out of Columbia University’s philosophy program and a two-year stint snapping ID pictures of sailors for the U.S. Merchant Marine during World War II, Avedon enrolled at The New School for Social Research (currently known as The New School). There he studied at Alexey Brodovitch’s Design Lab, where his inventiveness and “terrierlike intensity” endeared him to his teacher. Brodovitch gave the 22-year-old Avedon the career-making opportunity to publish work alongside masters such as Henri Cartier-Bresson and Brassaï, both contributors to Bazaar during that time.

Starting with his coverage of the fall and spring fashion collections in Paris, Avedon invigorated the magazine’s pages by taking couture-clad models out of the studio and into the streets. Inspired by Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi’s approach, Avedon instructed models to move, laugh, and leap—at times dancing with them with his Rolleiflex camera around his neck. Instead of posing models like lacquered mannequins, Avedon presented women as faceted, complex, and active characters. Further encouraged by Brodovitch, Harper’s Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow, and fashion editor Diana Vreeland, Avedon developed a thrilling, kinetic approach to fashion photography that revolutionized how clothes were presented in media.

Avedon produced several of the most celebrated and studied fashion photographs in history. There’s the 1955 image of the lithe supermodel Dovima wearing a Christian Dior gown posing between four circus elephants; the charming portrait of Dovima next to an Afghan hound named Sacha and the spirited image of model Carmen Dell’Orefice wrapped in a Pierre Cardin swing coat deftly jumping over a puddle. (The 1957 photograph is Avedon’s homage to Munkácsi, who created a similar image for Harper’s Bazaar in 1934.) His early work, bursting with optimism and freedom, captured the zeitgeist of the post-war era.

By his early 30s, Avedon was already as a superstar—contributing to top magazines such as Life, Vogue, Look, and Graphis, aside from serving as chief photographer at Harper’s Bazaar. His exploits in the Parisian fashion circles even became the basis for the 1957 Hollywood movie Funny Face, with Fred Astaire playing a fashion magazine photographer named Dick Avery, who romances a young ingénue played by Audrey Hepburn.

Art director Ruth Ansel (2016 AIGA Medalist), who worked closely with Avedon at Bazaar from 1961 to 1971, distills his work ethic as “imagination ruled by discipline.” Ansel, who was just beginning her career, says observing a great master like Avedon agonize over assignments instilled in her an indelible lesson about what it really takes to have a long, successful career. “I found out that the people who were great geniuses worked harder than anyone else. I had to restructure my whole concept of what being talented meant,” says Ansel.

Ever tweaking, questioning, and experimenting, Avedon felt the pressure to make every assignment great. “Every time I take a camera in my hand, it’s crucial. It’s crucial. Maybe I’m scared like an athlete gets scared. If you’re going to try for the high jump, you could blow it. That’s exactly what taking a photograph is like,” said Avedon during an interview with Charlie Rose in 1999.

While Avedon made his name through glamorous fashion assignments, he is perhaps more widely remembered today as one of the greatest American portrait photographers. With a series of stylized, large-scale black-and-white portraits framed by the black borders of the negatives, Avedon created a signature style and defined philosophy for portraiture.

“A portrait is not a likeness,” asserted Avedon. “The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate, none of them is the truth.”

Much like how the French photographer Nadar photographed luminaries of the 19th century, Avedon catalogued hundreds of his generation’s most interesting personalities. They include cultural titans such as Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan, Samuel Beckett, Marilyn Monroe, and Buckminster Fuller, as well as world leaders such as Dwight Eisenhower, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, the Dalai Lama, Ronald Reagan, and Barack Obama, whose 2004 portrait is among the very last Avedon took before he died from complications of a cerebral hemorrhage in San Antonio, Texas.

Few refused the opportunity to sit for Avedon, even if the result would not always be so flattering. A keen observer of physiognomy, Avedon wasn’t so much interested in finding pleasing angles for his subjects but sought to encapsulate a narrative through their physical attributes. Without props or special effects, he presented his subjects on a plain background and “produced an extended meditation on life, death, art, and identity,” as Metropolitan Museum of Art curator Maria Morris puts it.

His most personal series, titled “Jacob Israel Avedon,” depicts the last four years of his father’s life. Avedon took seven unflinching portraits as a way to demonstrate his craft to his ailing father, who didn’t always understand his artistic son’s work. A reckoning and a reunion, Avedon says the sessions at his father’s home in Florida finally gave them a common language.

Avedon also took great interest in subjects who would never make it on the pages of glossy magazines. Amid the socio-political upheavals during his 60-year career, Avedon turned his lens to coal miners, mental institution patients, blue-collar workers, and a wide-ranging spectrum of misfits. Through portraiture, Avedon ruminated on issues such as racial equality, the price of war, and social justice. “He was interested in the changing world around him, which he instilled in me as a graphic designer,” says Ansel. “He had a profound love seeing life unfold through a theatrical lens.”

“Dick was interested in not only fashion but in documenting the changing world around him. He recognized in the early 60’s there was a seismic shift in society that manifested itself in a massive youth movement, which was quickly taking over the world. There was an explosion of pop culture including the music of The Beatles and Bob Dylan; young women liberated by the pill who were experiencing sexual freedom; and a moonshot culminating in sending a man to the moon,” says Ansel. Out of this great moment came the “Bazaar” April 1965 issue, which Avedon guest edited. “The issue captured all these changes at once. It broke the traditional boundaries of what a fashion magazine had looked like until then. Avedon let me in on one of his most valuable secrets, which was, ‘only photograph what you love.’ It’s something I believe in to this day.”

After 20 years at Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon resigned after quarreling with editors over wanting to feature non-Caucasian models in the magazine’s April 1965 issue. He followed Vreeland to Vogue and after four years as staff photographer there, he ventured out on his own and eventually turned away from editorial fashion photography.

“I can’t divide fashion from the way we live,” explained Avedon, describing his disillusionment with the tropes of the fashion industry. “We can’t have teenage girls leaning against pianos with their backsides up…Fashion is part of a thinking world—it’s about people, not just about models.” Avedon became The New Yorker’s first staff photographer in 1992, where he continued to make portraits and was given the freedom to develop expansive photo essays.

His last assignment for The New Yorker was his most ambitious: a series of portraits depicting the American political landscape during the 2004 presidential elections called “Democracy.” In his usual mode, he photographed political candidates and politically-minded movie stars alongside activists, poll workers, and voters.

Photography was how Avedon made sense of the world. Being a photographer meant paying “attention to what most people want to get rid of as quickly as possible,” he said. Avedon had the rare ability to bring a sense of reality to his work, from his groundbreaking fashion work to his later portraits that lionized less glamorous lives. “An artist has to study, to scrutinize, to find the garbage essential—relevant—in order to close the gap between what happened and what we understand.”


Timeline:

1923 Born in New York City

1935 Joins the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Camera Club

1937 Attends DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, New York, where he and James Baldwin become co-editors of the school’s literary magazine

1941 Named “Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools”; enrolls in Columbia University to study poetry and philosophy

1942 Drops out of Columbia and joins the US Merchant Marine as Photographer’s Mate Second Class

1944 Enrolls in The New School for Social Research and studies under Alexey Brodovitch; marries bank teller Dorcas Marie Nowell (who later became model and actress Doe Avedon)

1945 Hired as a staff photographer for Harper’s Bazaar

1949 Divorces Nowell

1951 Marries Evelyn Franklin

1955 Shoots “Dovima and the Elephants” in Paris’s Cirque d’hiver

1957Funny Face, a Hollywood film loosely based on Avedon’s exploits in Paris opens

1959 Publishes his first book, Observations, with an essay by Truman Capote

1962 First exhibition about his work opens at the Smithsonian Institution

1964 Publishes Nothing Personal, a book of photographs with an essay by his former classmate James Baldwin

1965 Guest-edits April 1965 pop issue of Harper’s Bazaar, collaborates with Ruth Ansel and Bea Feitler for a last-minute solution for the cover

1970 A major exhibition about his work opens at the Minneapolis Museum of Art

1973 Receives the AIGA Medal “for his superb contribution to graphic design through photography”

1974 Exhibits at the Marlborough Gallery in New York

1979 Receives a commission from the Amon Carter Museum to photograph portraits of the American West

1981 Shoots iconic nude photograph of actress Nastassja Kinski with a boa constrictor around her body

1982 Creates a series of advertisements for Christian Dior

1985 Controversial In the American West exhibition, featuring portraits of coal miners, housewives, and laborers opens at the Amon Carter Museum

1992 Joins The New Yorker as its first-ever staff photographer

2002 Richard Avedon, Portraits, a major retrospective of his portraiture, opens at The Metropolitan Museum of Art

2004 Dies in San Antonio, Texas; Richard Avedon Foundation opens in New York City


Sources:

American Masters Series: Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light. Directed by Helen Whitney. United States: PBS, 2005.

Avedon, Richard. “Harper’s Bazaar. Design of an American fashion magazine,” Graphis, Issue 137, 1968.

Charlie Rose: Photographer, Richard Avedon on his gift for capturing the private side of public figures and his book, ‘An Auto-biography Richard Avedon.’ PBS, aired October 5, 1993, accessed June 1, 2017. https://charlierose.com/videos/7940.

Charlie Rose: Richard Avedon on his return to fashion editorial work with the portfolio, “In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort.” PBS, aired November 1, 1995, accessed June 1, 2017. https://charlierose.com/videos/3551.

Charlie Rose: Photographer Richard Avedon on capturing fashion, history, and art., PBS, aired November 26, 1999, accessed June 1, 2017. https://charlierose.com/videos/1342.

Richard Avedon: Portraits, Opening at Metropolitan Museum on September 26, Captures Creative Genius of a Generation, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, accessed June 1, 2017. http://www.metmuseum.org/press/exhibitions/2002/irichard-avedon-portraitsi-opening-at-metropolitan-museum-on-september-26-captures-creative-genius-of-a-generation.


This project is supported in part by an award from the National Endowment for the Arts.