Legendary Photographer Richard Avedon

1955 Avedon photo of model Dovima with elephants.
1955 Avedon photo of model Dovima with elephants.

Photography Is Not Truth

“There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” So said legendary photographer Richard Avedon, the New York native whose artistic vision forever changed the way fashion was photographed, famous figures were captured in portrait, and how non-celebrities were immortalized in his journalistic photos. This is a look into the career and the art of one of the 20th Century's most gifted and influential photographers, Richard Avedon.

Avedon brought a fresh approach to fashion, such as this whimsical 1956 photo of models Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall rollerskating in Paris.
Avedon brought a fresh approach to fashion, such as this whimsical 1956 photo of models Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall rollerskating in Paris.

The Early Years of Avedon's Career

Richard Avedon was a New Yorker, through and through. Born on May 15, 1923 in New York City to a Russian-Jewish family, Avedon attended high school in the Bronx. A shy child, Avedon began experimenting with photography before he was even in his teens. One of his friends was James Baldwin, with whom Avedon worked on the high school newspaper. Baldwin, of course, went on to become an acclaimed writer, and in 1964, the old high school chums joined forces once more to collaborate on a book entitled Nothing's Personal. Apparently Baldwin was not the only talented writer at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, for in 1941, Avedon was named the Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools.

In 1944, Richard Avedon joined the U.S. Merchant Marines. He took with him a Rolleiflex camera, which he used to photograph the crew members on the ships. After leaving the Merchant Marines in 1944, Avedon returned to New York, where his first job in fashion was working in the ad department for the upscale department store Bonwit Teller. During this time, the young photographer also studied at the New School under Alexey Brodovitch. Brodovitch had been recruited by Harper's Bazaar editor-in-chief Carmel Snow to become the art director for the magazine and to take the publication in a fresh and modern new direction that would make it a serious rival to Vogue magazine. It was not long before Brodovitch saw in his student Avedon a photographer worthy of taking on this mission, and he recruited Avedon to join him at Harper's Bazaar in 1945.

Avedon revolutionized fashion photography by capturing models in motion, as in this 1957 photo.
Avedon revolutionized fashion photography by capturing models in motion, as in this 1957 photo.

Avedon Revolutionized Fashion Photography At Harper's Bazaar

Avedon was the chief photographer at Bazaar under several famous editors, including Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland. He took fashion photography in a completely new direction upon his arrival at the magazine. The favored style at that time was to use the models as “beautiful hangers” to showcase the clothing featured, without revealing any personality of the model herself. Avedon's approach could not have been further from the emotionless static images which were the usual fashion spread at the time. He strove to capture something of the spirit of the models, and often photographed them showing emotion, in motion, and in candid non-posed shots. The results were striking and elegant, just the modern style that Brodovitch envisioned for Bazaar.

Avedon took his models out of the studio and into places never before conceived of for fashion shoots. They went to the beach (barefoot, no less!), the zoo, the Eiffel Tower, and even the pyramids. Not only were the locales atypical, but so were the poses, which were deliberately unposed in appearance. Models played leapfrog, laughed, walked on stilts, struck outrageous poses, all in the name of capturing something much deeper than the cut of a dress. As Avedon once said, “I wasn't interested in fashion, but in making images that reflected a burst of joy and energy.” It was not long before the distinctive “Avedon look” was crystallized.

Avedon's famous shot from 1981 of Nastaassja Kinski and the serpent.
Avedon's famous shot from 1981 of Nastaassja Kinski and the serpent.
Avedon's uniquely printed photo of Kate Moss shot for a 1997 Versace advertising campaign.
Avedon's uniquely printed photo of Kate Moss shot for a 1997 Versace advertising campaign.

Driven From Vogue By Anna Wintour

The young photographer set up his own studio in 1946, working for venerable magazines such as Vogue and Life in addition to Harper's Bazaar. Avedon became famous for his pictures of models smiling, in action, and also behind the scenes. Through the years, he photographed virtually every famous model, including Suzy Parker, Jean Shrimpton, Veruschka, Penelope Tree, Twiggy, Stephanie Seymour, Carmen Kass, Milla Jovovich, Kate Moss, and Gisele Bundchen, just to name a few. Many of Avedon's fashion images were remarkable for their unique perspective, and sometimes for their offbeat accessories, such as the famous 1955 photo of model Dovima with an elephant and his legendary 1981 picture of a seductive Nastassja Kinski lounging with a snake.

Richard Avedon was a fixture at the annual haute couture collections in Paris, photographing the new designs for Bazaar and Vogue from 1947-1984. Some of his most intriguing shots were the behind the scene candids, such as those showing the models backstage or being photographed by other photographers. Avedon remained at Bazaar until 1965. During his two decades on staff, he not only changed the way fashion photography was styled, but also pushed to see more models of color in the pages of the magazine. In 1966, Avedon became a staff photographer at Vogue, and by 1973 was the chief photographer, charged with coming up with the magazine's iconic covers most months. He remained at the magazine until 1990, working under famous editors such as Alexander Liberman and Diana Vreeland. A falling out with notoriously difficult editor-in-chief Anna Wintour was the cause for Avedon's exit from Vogue in 1990. Avedon returned to the magazine world as a staff photographer for The New Yorker under editor Tina Brown in 1992.

Stephanie Seymour in Avedon's ad campaign for Versace, F/W 1993-94.
Stephanie Seymour in Avedon's ad campaign for Versace, F/W 1993-94.
The picture of Audrey Hepburn Avedon took for the film "Funny Face".
The picture of Audrey Hepburn Avedon took for the film "Funny Face".

Avedon Was A Cultural Icon And Also Created Icons

Some of the best known ad campaigns for fashion designers have come from the camera lens of Avedon, not only in print campaigns, but on television as well. Avedon was the director who got 15 year old Brooke Shields to purr the famous line, “You know what comes between me and my Calvins? Nothing.” in a Calvin Klein ad that was so provocative that it was banned by CBS in 1980. Klein tapped Avedon's talent again in 1985 for the avant-garde Obsession fragrance television ads. Some of Avedon's best known fashion advertising campaigns have been print ads for Versace. The fearless photographer was a perfect fit for the edgy, flamboyant designer. The ads featured famous faces like Stephanie Seymour and Kate Moss. Interestingly enough, some of the images Avedon shot of Moss were nudes, showing nothing of the clothing the ads were ostensibly designed to promote.

A fascinating fact about much of Avedon's fashion photography is that it often partially obscured the famous faces of the models in the pictures. Actress Audrey Hepburn was his muse in the 1950s and '60s, yet some of his best known images of her show her well-known face in a way that does not reveal its beauty in a traditional way. The 1957 film Funny Face starring Hepburn was loosely based on the career of Richard Avedon, with Fred Astaire playing the role of fashion photographer “Dick Avery”. A visual consultant for the film, Avedon did some of the stills for the movie, including the most iconic image, an intentionally overexposed shot of Audrey Hepburn in which only her features can be seen. Avedon said of Hepburn, "I am, and forever will be, devastated by the gift of Audrey Hepburn before my camera. I cannot lift her to greater heights. She is already there. I can only record. I cannot interpret her. There is no going further than who she is. She has achieved in herself her ultimate portrait."

Avedon was known for his psychologically revealing portraits, such as this one of actress Marilyn Monroe.
Avedon was known for his psychologically revealing portraits, such as this one of actress Marilyn Monroe.
Henry Kissinger asked Avedon to "be kind" to him when shooting his portrait.
Henry Kissinger asked Avedon to "be kind" to him when shooting his portrait.

Portraiture Was His True Passion

Fashion photography paid the bills, but it was portaiture that Avedon found the most deeply satisfying. In the 1950s, he began taking studio shots of famous people from all manner of fields, including actors, writers, politicians, and other celebrities. The Avedon portraits were done in a very distinctive manner, primarily using a large format 8x10 camera on a tripod. Avedon posed his subjects directly facing the unblinking eye of the camera against a plain background. It was as if the camera was peering into the very soul of the subject, and exposed the character of the portrait subject, flaws and all. The pictures have been likened to mug shots in their unvarnished directness (this is not to say that they were unretouched, however, as Avedon was known for retouching the images, work that was often done by one of his many studio assistants). The famous minimalist black and white portraits were remarkable for their ability to reveal something private about well-known but distant public figures. Avedon described his approach to photography in this way, “I've worked out a series of no's. No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative.”

At the heart of Avedon's success as a portrait photographer was his ability to establish a connection with his subjects. Before he began snapping pictures, he stirred up their emotions by engaging them in uncomfortable or personal conversations. By the time he took the pictures, the subject's soul was laid bare for Avedon's camera. Despite the perils of revelation, the celebrities and powerful figures flocked to Avedon's studio. It was not without some trepidation, however, that one sat for Richard Avedon. As Henry Kissinger prepared for a portrait session, he asked Avedon to “Be kind to me”. In 1959 he collaborated with Truman Capote on a book called Observations which featured images of many well-known personalities, such as Gloria Vanderbilt, Pablo Picasso, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mae West.

James Story, coal miner, Somerset, Colorado, December 18, 1979 from Avedon's "In the American West" series.
James Story, coal miner, Somerset, Colorado, December 18, 1979 from Avedon's "In the American West" series.

Reportage: Avedon Turned His Lens To Serious Topics

It was not only fashion models and power brokers who interested Richard Avedon. Some of his most striking photos were taken of regular people. Using the same techniques which he did for his studio portraits, Avedon tackled many subjects. The resulting images were unvarnished and not always flattering, but he gave the same gravitas to a coal miner or mental hospital patient as he did a head of state. In 1963, Avedon left New York to capture images of the Civil Rights Movement. While in the South, he also did a series of photographs of a black Debutante Cotillion in 1963 New Orleans, which showed African-Americans in a very different light than many white Americans were used to thinking of them, as part of society, not just as maids or farmhands. Other social issues caught Avedon's attention as well, including the Vietnam War protestors and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

One of Avedon's best known non-fashion projects was an exhibit called “In the American West”. The photographer was commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Ft. Worth, TX in 1979 to travel around the Western United States taking portraits of the regular working class people he met. The project spanned six years, and in 1985 the exhibit of his large scale portraits was opened. The collection of photos of coal miners, bee keepers, oil field workers, cowboys, drifters, and others is widely considered to be an important hallmark of American portraiture in the 20th Century. The images are gritty and unromantic, but powerful. Although some have criticized Avedon for presenting some less-than-flattering pictures of his subjects, overall “In the American West” has been highly acclaimed. There was a best selling book, and the exhibit traveled around the country to museums including the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

A still from Avedon's avant-garde 1985 Obsession ads for Calvin Klein.
A still from Avedon's avant-garde 1985 Obsession ads for Calvin Klein.

Revered In His Own Lifetime

Richard Avedon was in a position which was unique among many artists, in that his talent and greatness were always recognized by his contemporaries. Many of the world's great artistic masters were never appreciated in their own time, so in this Avedon was very fortunate. Among the many honors and awards granted to Avedon were the International Center of Photography Master of Photography Award in 1993, the Prix Nadar for his photo book Evidence in 1994, and the Royal Photographic Society 150th Anniversary Medal in 2003. Avedon was honored with a 50 year retrospective of his work at the Whitney Museum of Art in 1994, as well as another retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York in 2002. To be recognized and celebrated at some of the world's great museums is indeed a great honor for a living artist.

There have been many other awards and honorary degrees granted to Avedon over the course of his long career, all the way until his death in 2004, while he was on assignment for The New Yorker. Avedon would presumably have been pleased that his death came while working, for as he freely admitted, photography was his life. Avedon summed up his relationship with photography by saying, “I speak through my photographs more intricately, more deeply than with words”. Although the man has passed on, his legacy carries on through the Richard Avedon Foundation, as well as through all the up-and-coming artists who have been inspired by the “Avedon look”.

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Comments 5 comments

russeltc 5 years ago

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russeltc 5 years ago

i loved reading this. thanks.


Lulu 4 years ago

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