“If each photograph steals a bit of the soul, isn’t it possible that I give up pieces of mine every time I take a picture?” – Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon was easily a triple-threat photographer. His fashion work redefined what fashion photographs said; his art photographs were featured in exhibitions; his commercial photographs advertised for clients like Revlon and Christian Dior.
Avedon’s photographic career begins
Richard Avedon served in the Merchant Marine during World War II. He learned the craft of photography by making identification portraits for thousands of sailors. He left the Merchant Marines in 1944. Avedon met Alexy Brodovitch and enrolled in the Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research. There, Brodovitch provided critique and encouragement for illustrators, graphic artists and photographers; occasionally giving them paid work. Brodovitch was also the art director for “Haper’s Baazar.”
Avedon, then 21, bonded with Brodovitch, becoming close friends. His work began publishing in “Junior Baazar” in 1945. Soon after it was shown regularly in “Harper’s Bazaar.” Soon, he was hired by the magazine and opened his own studio. Brodovitch used Avedon’s studio as an off-campus home for his lab classes in the ’50s.
Avedon received choice assignments — the Paris fall and spring collections — much to the chagrin of other, more senior, staff photographers. Avedon photographed fashion for “Harper’s” from 1945-1965. Avedon moved to “Vogue” from 1966-1990. His vision pushed fashion photography in many ways including motion blur and the surreal. He also introduced nudity into his fashion work.
Photographing the Paris collections was a lot of work. Avedon took models to Paris cafes, clubs and gambling establishments festooning the scenes with escorts elegantly dressed in suits. The next year he photographed the couture-clad models at the circus. His famous photograph “Dovima with Elephants” was one of the results (upper right
corner of the opening photo).
There’s always been a separation between fashion and what I call my “deeper” work. Fashion is where I make my living. I’m not knocking it. It’s a pleasure to make a living that way. It’s pleasure, and then there’s the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits. It’s not important what I consider myself to be, but I consider myself to be a portrait photographer.
This quote can be said to lay out Avedon’s vision for the American West project as well as other photographs of people. He did photograph well knowns — President Dwight Eisenhower, Marilyn Monroe, The Beatles, Bob Dylan; political and cultural figures: Hillary Rodham Clinton, Stephen Sondheim and Toni Morrison; civil rights leaders: Martin Luther King, Jr., Julian Bond, Malcolm X. He also photographed segregationists, Alabama Governor George Wallace is an example.
He photographed American soldiers, Vietnamese napalm victims and the Chicago Seven in a series of Vietnam War Portraits in 1969.
1974 saw his photographs of his terminally ill father on display in an exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art. A retrospective of his work, “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977” was mounted by the Metropolitan Museum. That exhibition toured internationally.
The New Yorker
Richard Avedon became the first staff photographer at The New Yorker magazine. At the time he said:
I’ve photographed just about everyone in the world. But what I hope to do is photograph people of accomplishment, not celebrity, and help define the difference once again.
Avedon made portraits for The New Yorker that were stark, simple and mesmerizing. He photographed Christopher Reeve in his wheelchair. He shared previously unpublished pictures of Marilyn Monroe. His photograph of Tilda Swinton (upper left corner of the opening photo) portrays her nude holding eye contact with the camera. Controversy swirled around this photo and others like the nude of actor Charlize Theron with director Patty Jenkins in 2004 (lower left corner of the opening photo).
His last assignment for the magazine was in 2004, a project entitled “Democracy.” He had already completed portraits of notable political leaders like John Kerry and Karl Rove. Avedon died in San Antonio while at work on that job. He was 81.
An Avedon quote for all photographers
And if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as if I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as if I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible.
Read more mini-bios of photographers who are good to know at On Photography on Photofocus.