The American fashion photographer Richard Avedon (born 1923) was best known for his probing portraits that go beyond recording likenesses to explore the identity of society and to reflect dreams and desires.
Richard Avedon was born in New York City on May 15, 1923. Educated in the New York City public school system, he left DeWitt Clinton High School without graduating. In 1942 he enlisted in the Merchant Marine's photographic section. Returning to civilian life in 1944, he worked as a department store photographer. A year later he was hired as a fashion photographer by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper's Bazaar. In 1946 he established his own studio and after that contributed photographs to Vogue, Theatre Arts, Life, Look, and Graphis.
Innovative Fashion Photography And Portraits
Traditionally, fashion photographs depicted elegant, aloof models in static poses. However, following the lead of the innovative Hungarian photographer Martin Munkasci, Avedon produced photographs blurred by the model's motion. By using a wide variety of settings and suggesting a plot through the model's expressive gestures, Avedon introduced an emotional complexity new to fashion photography. Later he took all his photographs in his studio, photographing the models in motion against the plain, white background that became his trademark. These fashion photographs, appearing in the editorial pages of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, brought him prestige, but the lucrative part of his work was advertisements to which he seldom signed his name.
Avedon was also noted for his portraits, which first appeared in Harper's Bazaar but were later published in books and exhibited at museums and gallerys. Stylistically, the portraits and the fashion photographs are alike. The earliest ones, mostly of celebrities, are often blurred as the subject engages in some characteristic activity: Marian Anderson sings, Louis Armstrong plays his horn, Jimmy Durante tips his hat. Later Avedon did away with blurring and soft focus. Instead, a strobe light illuminates every pore and flaw of the subject's face, turning wrinkles into crevices. It was as if Avedon were trying to escape the elegant, youthful images of the fashion world by an intense scrutiny of old age and ugliness.
Of his portraits Avedon said, "The way someone who's being photographed presents himself to the camera, and the effect of the photographer's response on that presence, is what the making of a portrait is all about." The tension between the self image the sitter is trying to project and Avedon's response to that image is somewhat hidden in these photographs because of Avedon's technique. The sitters face forward, virtually filling the picture which is often printed with the black edges of the negative forming a funereal frame. Printed in starkly contrasted black and white, subjects are isolated against a white background. Without a context, the viewer is forced to focus on the sitters' personalities as revealed by their faces and gestures. The frontality of the pose, the empty background, and the harshly revealing light suggest that the photographer has not intervened. The viewer seems to see the bare truth, which in these portraits is seldom flattering. However, as the title of his book, Nothing Personal, suggests, his savage vision seems to be directed not at the subjects but at vanity and hypocrisy in general.
His portraits were virtually all of celebrities, but he did take a series of photographs of the insane, leading critics to claim that Avedon aimed his lens at the two classes of people least able to defend their privacy—the celebrated and the helpless. In any case, his later photographs are less harsh. The photographs of his father, done between October 1969 and August 1973, have been admired for their humanity as they trace his father's losing battle against incurable cancer.
Pictorial Studies of Everyday Americans
In his later work, undertaken for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, and published under the title In the American West, Avedon used his favorite white background and flat lighting. But the sitters were ordinary people rather than celebrities. Here he seemed to be following in the footsteps of the German photographer August Sander (1876-1964), who set about cataloguing archetypal Germans—butchers, aristocrats, Nazis. Avedon, too, labelled his sitters with their occupations: housewife, coal miner, drifter. Like Sander, Avedon believed that the human condition is essentially tragic.
Gentler but no less probing than his earlier portraits, these photographs explore the lives of marginal people, those scrabbling to fulfill the American dream. Like his earlier work, these subjects were photographed in flat light against a white background. The figures are sometimes framed off-center as if they had accidentally sidled into the camera's view, or they are cropped seemingly arbitrarily, reinforcing the notion that the viewer is seeing the people directly rather than through Avedon's eyes. The result is a sense of immediacy, of sincerity that is quite powerful.
Honors and Awards
Avedon has received many awards and honors over the years for his work. In 1958, Popular Photography voted him one of the ten greatest photographers in the world, and more recently, in 1989, he received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London. He was appointed as the first and only New Yorker staff photographer by editor Tina Brown in 1992. In 1996, he was profiled by Helen Whitney in a television special called Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light.
Further Reading on Richard Avedon
Avedon's photographs appear in Observations (1959) with a text by Truman Capote; Nothing Personal (1964), with a text by James Baldwin; Richard Avedon: Portraits (1976), with an introduction by Harold Rosenberg; Avedon: Photographs (1947-1977), with text by Harold Brodkey; In the American West (1985); An Autobiography (1993); and Evidence (1994). Since the texts of these books are usually only loosely connected to the photographs, the best source of information on Avedon and his work is Janet Malcom's article "Photography: Men Without Props" in The New Yorker, September 22, 1975.
Avedon can be found on the Web at the A&E Biography site, http: //www.biography.com, and on the Time site at http://w //www.pathfinder.com/@@EqwXNQYAtuDpY7OJ/time/magazine/domestic/1994/940328/940328.photog.