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AVEDON

Compiled and Edited by Margret Punzalan

Compiled and Edited by Margret Punzalan


AVEDON


AVEDON Compiled and Edited by Margret Punzalan


Printed and bound in San Francisco, California by Blurb, Inc. Designed for Typography 3 at Academy of Art University Semester: Spring 2016 Instructor: Lian Ng Typeset in ITC New Baskerville Std and Avenir Next


For Ryan who introduced me to Avedon’s work and who inpires me everyday


TABLE OF CONTENTS


07

Foreword

08

Behind the Camera

16

Fashion Forward

26

According to Avedon

44

Influence

57

The Vision Thing

66

The Images


AVEDON


FOREWORD Richard Avedon’s fashion and portrait photo-

the person being photographed. Avedon

graphs helped define America’s style, beauty,

believed that the photographs were more

and culture during the second half of the

about him than they are about the people he

20th century. Throughout his lifetime, his

photographed, and by examining his work,

method of photographing fashion models,

life, interviews, and statements made by the

celebrities, and ordinary people was the

people he has worked with, we can have a

same. His ultimate goal was not to produce

great understanding of the the man behind

images of idealistic beauty, but instead to

the camera.

reveal the true personality and emotion of


BEHIND THE CAMERA The Life of Richard Avedon

WHAT DO JEAN GENET, JIMMY DURANTE,

Upon his return in 1944, he found a job as a

Brigitte Bardot, Georgia O’Keeffe, Jacques

photographer in a department store. Within

Cousteau, Andy Warhol, and Lena Horne have

two years he had been “found” by an art

in common? They were a few of the many

director at Harper’s Bazaar and was produc-

personalities caught on film by photographer

ing work for them as well as Vogue, Look,

Richard Avedon. For more than fifty years,

and a number of other magazines. During

Avedon’s portraits have filled the pages of the

the early years, Avedon made his living

country’s finest magazines. Avedon’s stark

primarily through work in advertising. His

imagery and brilliant insight into his subjects’

real passion, however, was the portrait and its

characters has made him one of the premier

ability to express the essence of its subject.

American portrait photographers.

As Avedon’s notoriety grew, so did the oppor-

Born in New York in 1923, Richard Avedon

tunities to meet and photograph celebrities

dropped out of high school and joined the

from a broad range of disciplines. Avedon’s

Merchant Marine’s photographic section.

ability to present personal views of public


BEHIND THE CAMERA

11


AVEDON


BEHIND THE CAMERA

13

figures, who were otherwise distant and inaccessible, was immediately recognized by the public and the celebrities themselves. Many sought out Avedon for their most public images. His artistic style brought a sense of sophistication and authority to the portraits. More than anything, it is Avedon’s ability to set his subjects at ease that helps him create true, intimate, and lasting photographs. Throughout his career Avedon has maintained a unique style all his own. Famous for their minimalism, Avedon portraits are often well lit and in front of white backdrops. When printed, the images regularly contain the dark outline of the film in which the image was framed. Within the minimalism of his empty studio, Avedon’s subjects move freely, and it is this movement which brings a sense of spontaneity to the images. Often containing only a portion of the person being photographed, the images seem intimate in their imperfection. While many photographers are interested in either catching a moment in time or preparing a formal image, Avedon has found a way to do both.

Laura Wilson with Avedon, photo by Ruedi Hoffmann


AVEDON

Beyond his work in the magazine industry,

Pablo Picasso, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer,

non-celebrities. The brutal reality of the

Avedon has collaborated on a number of

Frank Lloyd Wright, and Mae West. Around

lives of the insane was a bold contrast to his

books of portraits. In 1959 he worked with

this same time he began a series of images

other work. Years later he would again drift

Truman Capote on a book that documented

of patients in mental hospitals. Replacing

from his celebrity portraits with a series of

some of the most famous and important peo-

the controlled environment of the studio

studio images of drifters, carnival workers,

ple of the century. Observations included

with that of the hospital he was able to rec-

and working class Americans.

images of Buster Keaton, Gloria Vanderbilt,

reate the genius of his other portraits with


BEHIND THE CAMERA

15

“The Pajama Game,” New York, 1954

Throughout the 1960s Avedon continued

continued working for Vogue magazine,

Evidence”. He was voted one of the ten great-

to work for Harper’s Bazaar and in 1974 he

where he would take some of the most

est photographers in the world by Popular

collaborated with James Baldwin on the book

famous portraits of the decades. In 1992 he

Photography magazine, and in 1989 received

Nothing Personal. Having met in New York

became the first staff photographer for The

an honorary doctorate from the Royal

in 1943, Baldwin and Avedon were friends

New Yorker, and two years later the Whitney

College of Art in London. Today, his pictures

and collaborators for more than thirty years.

Museum brought together fifty years of his

continue to bring us a closer, more intimate

For all of the 1970s and 1980s Avedon

work in the retrospective, “Richard Avedon:

view of the great and the famous.


Avedon’s Life at a Glance

U.S. MERCHANT MARINE 1942–1944 Avedon serves as a photographer for the United States Merchant Marine, using the Rolleiflex camera given to him by his father.

NEW SCHOOL FOR SOCIAL RESEARCH 1944–1950 Avedon studies under Alexey Brodovitch, art director for Harper’s Bazaar magazine.

AVEDON OPENS OWN STUDIO 1946

1920

1930

1940

1950

1960

BIRTH

HARPER’S BAZAAR

1923

1945–1965

Richard Avedon is born to Anna, from a family of dress manufacturers, and Jacob Israel Avedon, owner of a clothing store called Avedon’s Fifth Aveue, who both inspire a love of fashion in art in Richard from a young age.

Avedon becomes staff photographer and later chief photographer for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, covering daily life in New York and fashion collections in Paris.


BEHIND THE CAMERA

VOGUE

THE NEW YORKER

1966–1990

1992–2004

Avedon joins Diana Vreeland at Vogue magazine as her staff photographer. He photographs most of the fashion magazine’s covers from 1973–1988.

Avedon becomes first staff photographer in the history of The New Yorker magazine.

DEATH 2004 Avedon passes away at the age of 81 while on assignment for The New Yorker magazine.

1970

1980

MINNEAPOLIS INSTITUTE OF ARTS 1970 Avedon’s first major non-fashion retrospective of his work opens at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts.

1990

IN THE AMERICAN WEST 1985 Avedon’s book of portrait work of drifters, miners, cowboys and others from the Western United States is published.

2000

2010

RICHARD AVEDON: PORTRAITS OF POWER 2009 The Corcoran Gallery of Art brings together Avedon’s political portraits for the first time.

17


FASHION FORWARD Avedon’s Version of True Beauty


FA S H I O N F O R WA R D

RICHARD AVEDON TOLD DIANA VREELAND,

leaping girls—all the bounty of the accessory

“I can’t think of myself as a purveyor of

table deployed, makeup wild, hair billowed

beauty to the world.” He wanted the real.

into sails by the wind machine, much of it

Avedon’s women are radiant and intense in a way that has never been equaled and never will be. His images of models, actresses, and society women became emblems of their time, of his eyes on those times: Dovima flanked by elephants, capricious Suzy Parker, elongated Marella Agnelli, Veruschka folded into herself, Nastassja Kinski with a snake. But Avedon pushed beyond the restrictions of fashion to record a deeper level; his portrait of June Leaf, for instance, contains worlds. “Portraiture is performance,” he wrote in

extra hair, Dynel falls, sometimes credited to a mysterious entity named Tovar Tresses. And yet the individuality of each model seems fully revealed in the perfect retouched images, as if artifice were also a way of exploring depth.

“You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface.” —RICHARD AVEDON A precocious master who started working for Harper’s Bazaar at 22, Avedon knew that the

1987. “You can’t get at the thing itself, the real

magazine’s Russian-born art director, Alexey

nature of the sitter, by stripping away the

Brodovitch, had a romantic idea of prewar

surface. You can only get beyond the surface

Paris, where he had grown up. In his edi-

by working with the surface. All that you can

torial photographs, Avedon re-created the

do is manipulate that surface—gesture, cos-

giddy Paris he had seen in the Fred Astaire

tume, expression—radically and correctly.”

movie Roberta (1935) and replicated the soft

In Avedon’s portraits, gesture is one accessory

Dovima with elephants, Paris, 1955

19

focus of 1930s cinema.

common to his sitters: Writers tend to show

The models he used were dark and delicate:

a hand, maybe both. In his fashion pictures,

the cheeky Maxime de la Falaise; Elise

costume is shown to best advantage, or

Daniels, whose quality was “either romantic

whipped into suggestion by the movement of

or irritated”; and Dorothy Virginia Margaret


AVEDON

Juba, who had re-created herself as Dovima—

Avedon’s camera, Parker came to be, along

Do for Dorothy, vi for victory, ma for her

with Marilyn Monroe, one of the symbols of

mother. Dovima’s face, said Avedon, “really

the 1950s.

was a kind of mask that lent itself to makeup.”

Avedon noticed that different parts of the

Two of his emblematic beauties were Dorian

body were compelling at different times.

Leigh and Suzy Parker. Leigh was “the Anna

“It was Suzy’s mouth more than any other

Magnani of the fashion world,” he said. But

part of her body, and it was Marilyn Monroe’s

when he first met Suzy Parker, Leigh’s sister,

mouth,” he said. “It started with the energy

Avedon recalled, “she was frightened and

that came in laughter.” In Jean Shrimpton’s

static and dull and had a lot of baby fat,

time, the focus was “all eyes,” he said; then

and it took me a long while.” Once she had

the emphasis shifted to the legs.

lost the baby fat and learned to flirt with


BEHIND THE CAMERA

21

Both photos: Veruschka, New York, 1967


AVEDON

China Machado was one of the first non-Cau-

a small head and a long throat like a swan,

casian models in the pages of Bazaar. Half

there was an immediate set of gut reactions

Chinese and half Portuguese, a runway model

and emotions to that as a very beautiful

for Givenchy, Machado had started posing for

thing,” Avedon said. “Sexually beautiful girls

Avedon in the late 1950s, contemptuous and

in those days were not considered beautiful

sophisticated in stiff brocade, with an attitude

enough to be in Harper’s Bazaar.”

and a cigarette. Her story was a bodice ripper: Born in Shanghai, raised in Argentina and Peru, her first love was the legendary bullfighter Luis Miguel Dominguín; her next, the movie star William Holden, before she settled down, temporarily, to marriage and children with a Frenchman. But the time was not ready for her. When told she would never be a commercial model, she joined Bazaar as a fashion editor. She continued to work with Avedon on editorial and ads for decades.

He exalted them all, but it was not personal. To the young women he photographed, Avedon was a grown-up, and pretty much a god. Few ever presumed to call him up for dinner. The wise China Machado observed him closely. “Dick’s mind was like a sponge, he could stare at someone and if they were interesting he wanted to know all about them, get all the information he could, and he would use it to expand his mind,” she says. “He’d put all his energy into them for about six months, and then, boom, no tele-

It was easier for magazines to accept ethereal,

phone calls. He knew that I didn’t want to

almost virginal, women—Audrey Hepburn,

cling to him, so that was why our relationship

or Marella Agnelli. “If a girl walked in with

lasted so long.”

Capucine, Paris, 1948


FA S H I O N F O R WA R D

23

Theo Graham, The Bahamas, 1946


AVEDON

Daytona Beach, Florida, 1946


FA S H I O N F O R WA R D

25

“The women I photographed were not the

painting of two naked lesbians, Le Sommeil

because of the clothes, of the fashion.’ Vogue

women I fell in love with, were not particu-

(1866), which one of his collaborators called

said, ‘No, we want this and that and not this

larly the kind of women that excited me or turned me on or interested me,” he told Doon Arbus, before adding, “That’s not true.” His first marriage was to a dark-haired model named Dorcas Nowell, whom he nicknamed “Doe”; the movie Funny Face (1957) is said to be based on their relationship, with Audrey Hepburn as Doe and Fred Astaire, his childhood hero, playing Avedon. His second wife, Evelyn Franklin, the mother of his son, John, was a beauty but never a model. Later, he was close to three intense, intelligent, talented women, each

“two fat women in bed.”

“The very beautiful things were never seen because of the fashion.”

one, because this dress is not important to us.’ So the very beautiful things were never seen. He said, ‘You know what we lost because of the fashion.’ “I left, and he brought me to the stairs,” Veruschka continues, “and as I went down,

It was the mind that caught his attention, not

all of a sudden I felt his eyes on me. I felt

the surface. He commanded, and expected,

him. So I turned around, and there he was,

a deep grasp of cultural references—visual,

standing up on the top of the stairs, and

theatrical, artistic, literary. “He was looking,”

looking so serious, staring intensely. It felt

Machado says, “for women who were really

like a lot of things he didn’t express—some-

in tune with their own art.”

thing we never fulfilled was all in this look.

of whom created new forms in her field: the

Richard Avedon died on October 1, 2004,

writer Renata Adler, author of Speedboat

on assignment for The New Yorker. “He died

(1976); the choreographer Twyla Tharp; and,

with his boots on,” says Lauren Hutton.

until the end of his life, Nicole Wisniak, the

At the time, he was beginning to work on

creator and one-woman staff of her own

a project about four of his “muses.” A year

magazine, Egoïste. The photographs he

before he died, he called Veruschka and

took for Egoïste are among his most playful.

asked her to his studio. She remembers:

In one issue he re-created Gustave Courbet’s

“He said, ‘It’s amazing what we didn’t show

Maybe unconsciously he thought, ‘That’s the last time I will see her.’ I can see it in front of me, this face, the intensity of him looking without saying, ‘Bye! See you soon.’ I was gone down all the stairs, and then I felt he was still there, and looked around, and there he was, standing, with this look.”


Avedon’s Women DURING AVEDON’S YEARS AS A FASHION

photographer, it was evident that he extended his loyalty and admiration to the one who, in his mind, was “his” model—the one on whom his creative thinking was centered, and on whom he could depend for complete projection of his ideas. Once he had become interested in a girl, he stuck to her with the fidelity of a reigning diva’s impresario— applauding her triumphs, developing her most striking characteristics, and observing by the hour her personality quirks and her mannerisms, both when moving about and when in repose. We take a look at the major leading ladies that had inspired some of his

DORIAN LEIGH 1948-1951

most iconic images.

AUDREY HEPBURN 1956-1967


FA S H I O N F O R WA R D

DOVIMA

S U Z Y PA R K E R

1951-1955

1956-1970

SUNNY HARNETT

VERUSCHKA

LAUREN HUTTON

1957-1964

1966-1972

1966-1973

27


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

His work in his own words

RICHARD AVEDON HAS SAID THAT ALL HIS

portraits are portraits of himself. He has also once said, “I am a natural photographer. It is my language, I speak through my photographs more intricately, more deeply than with words.” Although we can already learn a great deal about Avedon through just his photographs, we learn even more through his own reflections of his life’s work. Through his words, we can discover his approach, his relationships with his subjects, his intent, and his outlook on his life and work.


AVEDON

My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph. —RICHARD AVEDON


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

Dovima, Diana Vreeland, and Richard Avedon, 1955

31


AVEDON

John Ford, Bel Air, California, 1972


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happened, and he has a certain real power over the result. —RICHARD AVEDON

33


AVEDON

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. —RICHARD AVEDON

Audrey Hepburn, 1957 (Above) and 1953 (Right)


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

35


AVEDON


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

I’ve worked out of a series of no’s. No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no’s force me to the “yes.” I have a white background. I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us. —RICHARD AVEDON

Buster Keaton, New York, 1952

37


AVEDON


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

39

Marilyn Monroe, New York, 1957


AVEDON

For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s— she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn’t photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no. —RICHARD AVEDON


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

Marilyn Monroe, New York, 1957

41


AVEDON

Real people move, they bear with them the element of time. It is this fourth dimension of people that I try to capture in a photograph. —RICHARD AVEDON

Jimmy Lopez, Sweetwater, Texas, 1979


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

43


AVEDON

Avedon with Twiggy, 1967


ACCORDING TO AVEDON

And if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. —RICHARD AVEDON

45


AVEDON


INFLUENCE

Avedon’s impact on those he worked with

Richard Avedon, by Ron Galella


AVEDON


INFLUENCE

I’M SURE YOU HAVE A FRIEND WHO CAN’T

city he was showing you, he would have his

be described—someone who is so much

camera always around his neck. Occasionally,

part of your thinking and your life that he or

he would briefly raise it and shoot. Weeks or

she is no more accessible to words than the

months later, you would get an album of pho-

air you breathe.

tographs of moments that you had not seen

I look at these photos and they seem as immediate as the last time I fell in love. I see Dick and Suzy showing me Paris for the first time as we conspired to shoot a layout for Harper’s Bazaar. It was Dick’s idea to pay homage to—and satirize—Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor in their constant flights from the paparazzi.

when they happened. Dick’s photos, helping you see your whole life.

“From Dick, I learned you have the ear you were born with, but the eye keeps learning.”

This was okay with the Burtons, who found

He lived, more than anyone I ever knew, in

the press (and themselves) pretty funny, too.

the moment. There was no thought of how

Dick, the visionary, really made it happen, and all we had to do was be there. For Suzy, of course, that meant being one of the most beautiful girls in the world—and an actress, who created the emotion for each dramatic

things were going. Things went well, or very well, or badly, but how he was had nothing to do with anything but right now. This room, these people, this joke, this meal, this wine, these sandwiches.

crisis in the lives of the imaginary stars. Dick

This man, these photos, this artist, indescrib-

wrote the story with his lens.

able, now and forever.

Just as he did in life. When you hung out with him and were, say, on vacation with your families on some island or in some wonderful hotel in the

Suzy Parker and Mike Nichols, 1962

49

—Excerpt from “We’ll Always Have Paris” by Mike Nichols


AVEDON A TRIP TO AVEDON’S STUDIO ON THE

Dick had a special vitality, composed of

morning after a shoot was always one of my

energy and charm. He loved scuttling about

very favorite things. Over three decades,

low to the ground and shot very fast. His

Dick’s generosity to me was unbounded, and

charm made you feel you were in good

there were none than twenty-five occasions

hands and that surely was a photographer

when we pondered the residue of sittings.

to trust. But Dick also had wiliness, both

This may seem a strange way of putting it,

the sort born swiftly of instinct and the kind

but something had gone in the day before,

that pondered long, worried hours. This

and something else would be waiting for

is important because many performers are

scrutiny when we gathered around the

privately very shy people. Some performers

picnic table in his studio kitchen the next

will turn on predictably and anyone can shoot

day. Marking the contacts, chopping and

them; others must be coaxed into them-

recomposing, was the best of all picnics.

selves, and a photographer of excellence can

It was great fun for me to see what Dick had

get this shot. Dick went beyond and could

captured in a split second, what of all the

acquire expression, delivering the unpredict-

boundless possibilities that I had collected

able fairly regularly. His energy gave him the

in a dance would be taken by his eye, the

fortitude to dig in to get the shot he had long

momentum driven into another dimension.

ago envisioned. Avedon was a theatrical direc-

The image that lay on the table was related

tor and his photograph was the performance.

to my dance, but it had been adapted into an

Making pictures with Dick was a grand adven-

Avedon souvenir of reality. No photograph is

ture, living on an edge that could not be but

the thing itself—though this is very confusing

would, even so. How to distract gravity?

to the primitive in me. Rather it is a reflec-

How to cheat life and get eternity? Dick was

tion of how the photographer sees it. And it

a fabulous thief.

is this vision frozen by the camera that will document the performance for the future.

—Excerpt from “The Picnic Table” by Twyla Tharp


INFLUENCE

51

Twyla Tharp Dance:, New York, 1980.


AVEDON

WHEN I WALKED INTO DICK’S STUDIO IT

And at a given point he said “That’s it! It’s

was quite extraordinary.

all done, anybody want a solo shoot?” And

I just sat on his high stool and he kept saying “Oh, that was so wonderful. Oh, that was so good.” Dick’s way of photographing was very special. He never told you “Stick there! Don’t move!” No. No. He would just stand there and talk to you. And he always stood next to the camera. I asked him, “You don’t need to look through the camera?” And he would say, “No. I have done it all my life.” But then when he pushed the shutter, wham! His entire body shook as if he had been hit by a lorry. I have never seen anything like it. And it happened every time.

Ian and I simultaneously, without an upbeat, without any conductor, we both said “Me!” He said, “Okay, quick, five minutes each.” I got it first. I had this long, long thing on, a kind of cufflike shawl, and I just stood there. And, whoosh, and that’s it. Out of three minutes of a photo shoot, one with the closed eyes and three or four others that are so startling that I almost feel embarrassed. People might think I look like this, which I don’t, you see. In retrospect, I realized he was not photographing a moment of stillness. He caught that moment of motion. He caught me between two breaths. The moment of “whish”

The second time, a year and a half later, I

that nobody notices. I felt as if Dick actually

was getting photographed with Ian Bostridge,

saw faster than somebody else, so he could

the tenor, for our cover of the recording of

catch a moment of in-between actions, when

Die Schöne Müllerin by Schubert. So we got

people are not self-conscious.

to New York one day and we were photographed and it was very serious and very funny at the same time. He made us laugh. And he made us make faces. And through

Whoosh. In between. Dick caught the moment that you never knew existed. —Excerpt from “Between Two Breaths by Mitsuko Uchida

all of that he probably loosened us up. And we got some amazingly beautiful pictures.

Mitsuko Uchida, New York, 2004


INFLUENCE

53


INFLUENCE

55

RICHARD AVEDON WAS MESMERIZED BY

At Avedon’s side for nearly three decades

He looked with a reverent, unsentimental

performance. He would crisscross New York

I had the best job in the world: colleague,

eye at performers, always acknowledging the

to see an unknown actor in a Beckett play

friend, voice of reason, accomplice. Over-

craft and the complexity. The work was hard

and then on to catch a friend in Chekhov,

hearing the dialogue and observing the

and he wasn’t afraid to fail. It could also

or head to Stockholm for an O’Neill drama

stagecraft behind the making of many of

be joyous, as the recollections that follow by

directed by Bergman in Swedish. His pre-

his photographs, I never tired of watching

some of his collaborators will describe.

occupation with theater often prompted

his performance.

visits to the same play many nights in a row, accompanied by exhausted friends. Sometimes he brought along the entire studio staff, teaching, poking with his elbow, making sure we experienced the same things that moved him. Much of that enthusiasm made its way into his pictures.

Richard Avedon, 1966, by Jacques-Henri Lartigue

Avedon was encouraging but relent-

Avedon worked every day, photographing,

less—”Make it better. That’s it. Wait. Ooh.

marking contacts, agonizing, changing his

One more. We got it.”

mind. Work was his exhilarant, a catalyst for ideas, inspiring images to be called upon as needed—an aging clown; a riotous theatrical troupe; an uncanny juxtaposition of arms, legs, and bodies that is a dance company.

—Norma Stevens, Director, The Richard Avedon Foundation


AVEDON

RICHARD AVEDON HAS PHOTOGRAPHED

The Avedons at the Corcoran give us the

only see when we’re up close to someone.

celebrities: presidents and generals, great

real Henry Kissinger. The authentic Andrew

Without resorting to forced, rhetorical signs

artists and heads of industry. And he photo-

Young. The unadorned Ronald Reagan.

of intimacy—a deliberate smile, a welcoming

graphed nonentities: no-name soliders and

The actual Duke and Duchess of Windsor.

gesture—Avedon can make a remote politi-

protesters and secretaries. What makes him

But also the authentic Abraham Rosenthal,

cian into someone you can get close to.

one of the greatest portraitists of the 20th

Pete Rozelle and Evelyn Lincoln.

century is that, when he’s at his very best, you can’t tell which is which. Forget the old idea that portraiture’s about revealing what a sitter has done, or some kind of “deeper self.” Avedon goes even deeper than that, down to the banal personhood that we all share. He reveals his sitters as being simply there, and real. He gives them a compelling

Who? Precisely. The crucial thing about

realize that, when they are most uniquely

Avedon’s approach is he’s an equal-oppor-

his, they give a sense that whatever pose his

tunity authenticator. Here you are, in the

sitters may be taking, whatever character

presence of someone who’s supposed to be

they assume, Avedon has captured an aver-

the greatest recorder of the nation’s great

ageness that matters more.

and mighty, and you can’t tell the players without a scorecard.

authenticity, even if he never claims to reveal

You may not grasp it consciously, but your

the “authentic” them.

eye knows that many of these portraits were

I met Avedon a half-dozen or so times. When I praised the fashion photos that I thought were his greatest work, he disagreed. He preferred his images of what-you-see-is-whatyou-get reality.

Look closely at Avedon’s portraits and you

—Excerpt from “Who’s Who, Redefined” by Blake Gopnik

taken from closer in than usual. Look hard at Avedon’s 2004 portrait of yet-to-be-famous Illinois state senator, Barack Obama, and you realize that his nose is rather larger than his ears. That gap in scale is something we

Ronald Reagan, Orlando, Florida, 1976


BEHIND THE CAMERA

57


THE VISION THING Avedon’s Definition of a Portrait


THE VISION THING

59

LOOK DEEP INTO THE EYES OF SOME OF

said, and that is their essence. No matter

Richard Avedon’s best-known portraits—

how straightforward it may look, an Avedon

William Casby (former slave), Igor Strav-

photo is planned in its every detail by

the most unpleasant way, what right do

insky (great composer)—and what you

Avedon. They’re pictures of the way he

Cézanne’s apples have to tell Cézanne how

will see is Richard Avedon. Some trick of

sees his subjects, and he couldn’t care less

to paint them?” he once asked.

lighting causes his own image to dance in

whether that’s how they are or whether

the windows of his subjects’ souls. When

that’s how they see themselves or whether

I finally met him and asked about this he

that’s how other people see them. If you

maintained that it was unintentional, but

mention that Dorothy Parker wasn’t really

he seemed rather pleased about it. “All

that ugly, that Isaiah Berlin isn’t that sour,

my portraits are self-portraits,” Avedon has

that if Oscar Levant was that disintegrated

Pablo Picasso, Beaulieu, France, 1958

it should have been his secret, he shrugs. “To say it in the toughest way possible, and

Early work on the streets of Harlem gave way to portraiture and fashion photography, and the tension between those two modes runs through his work. His critics say that he makes everyone look the same, with that trademark white background, but what’s


AVEDON

the same is him, not the photos. Those who

camera of his own dog’s death in an accident,

want to dismiss him say that it’s all portrai-

and so caught forever the crestfallen, sad

ture. The only real insight here is the shared

faces of a Duke and Duchess royally jaded

one: it’s all the same thing, all Avedon, all

and useless. The photo of Ezra Pound was

perfectly lucid and controlled. It’s about

snapped at the moment when he revealed

surface: “Scratch the surface,” Avedon once

to Pound that he was Jewish. But usually the

said, “and if you’re lucky, you’ll find more sur-

story of the photograph cannot be reduced

face.” But in the hands of the master, surface

to a one-liner. When it’s a celebrity, he has

isn’t at all superficial. His clean, enormous

just an hour or two, and since he’s a celebrity

photos have a focus sharper than the human

himself, he gets special treatment (the

eye’s, and every pore, every fold of clothing,

Nureyev’s erection story is not so different

every hair is telling you something. These

from the Liz Taylor putting on her own

pictures beg for close reading. Choose any detail, no matter how tiny or obscure, and ask why. Avedon has an answer. And look at his lifetime’s work all together, and you will find that it is about a single, monumental vision of the world, that each individual photo is only a hint, a fragment, of some larger truth of perception, Avedon’s personal unified field theory.

“Avedon quickly gets what that no one else has ever been able to get from people hardened against cameras.” makeup story, and both of those after what he did to Gabrielle Chanel’s throat) and he

The anecdotes behind the photos are

pretty quickly gets something that no one

famous. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor

else has ever been able to get from people

were better at presenting themselves to

hardened against cameras. Perhaps his most

the camera than anyone; Avedon, knowing

arresting images are the big group shots: the

how they loved dogs, told from behind his

Chicago Seven, Warhol’s Factory, the War


FA S H I O N F O R WA R D

61

Gabrielle Chanel, Paris France, 1958


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Mikhail Baryshnikov and Twyla Tharp, New York, 1975


THE VISION THING

63

Council, and Allen Ginsberg with his family.

irresistibly untouchable. Avedon’s portraits

pictures of the East Louisiana State Hospital,

Look at them attentively, take into account

often get called “merciless” but his work

a mental hospital in Jackson, which narrate

the time that lapsed as he took them (they’re

can be so beautiful and so glamorous that it

both the private world of each figure and

divided panels of images) and you can see

becomes iconic; the poses he invented for

the bare story of their collective disconnec-

everyone’s relationship to everything else,

specific subjects and models are now poses

tion. He spent a week in the Jackson asylum

what the pecking orders are, who leads, who

we all use to connote purest elegance.

to do this series, photographing all day,

follows. You can even see how those relationships are being re-negotiated in front of the photographer. Look who touches whom, who faces the camera, who looks jealously at someone else’s bigger presence. It’s all there.

sleeping at night on the ward, the terrible

“Avedon’s portraits often get called merciless.” Freudians made much of Jacob Israel Avedon,

faces and compositions of the next day’s photos crowding his dreams and his wakefulness. Avedon’s stunningly lovely sister, Louise, went mad and killed herself in an institution at the age of 40, and her story

Everyone has been influenced by the fashion

Avedon’s 1974 show at the Museum of

work. You have only to say to a photographer

Modern Art of photos of his father decaying

or critic, “Dovima with elephants”—

from cancer. There is some conventional

Avedon’s famous 1955 picture of the model

wisdom according to which you should beau-

Dovima wearing Yves Saint Laurent’s first

tify what you love, and in this light, Avedon

dress for Christian Dior, walking towards the

seems no kinder to his father than Oedipus

camera with elephants behind her—and

was to his. But the pictures are rigorous and

Marxists had a picnic with In the American

whomever you’re talking to throws his arms

clear-eyed. Avedon has said that there is no

West 1979-1984. The five-year project to

back and up in imitation of the model’s

such thing as truth in photography, that

photograph people in the western states

unforgettable posture. Marella Agnelli’s

there is only accuracy, but these photos are

resulted in an exhibition at the Amon

absurdly long neck (he retouched her

full of truth, and truth is a kind of adoration.

Carter Museum, a book, and print sales.

shoulders to dramatise the attenuation) is

There is truth also in his astonishing 1963

The point was made any number of times

lingers in this tragic body of work. There is a clue here about something knowing and sad that informs all his images, what is explicit in the asylum photographs is implicit everywhere else.


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THE VISION THING

65

Allen Ginsberg’s Family, 1970


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Katharine Hepburn, New York, 1955


THE VISION THING

67

that he sold his prints for more than most

Interviewing Richard Avedon is not easy.

running the show. He looks at you and you

of these people would earn in two years

No notebooks, no tape recorders. It’s not

feel that he sees you, but if you try to find

(though everyone who was in the show got

quite an interview and it’s not quite a con-

out what he is seeing, you see only yourself

a free print and a copy of the book), and

versation, and the whole thing has about it a

reflected back in the pupil of his eye. You

that his documenting their misery and

certain quality of alarming artifice, because

can blink if you want to, but he is the pupil

showing them in an art museum fed into

although you think that you are interrogating

of your eye also, and you feel that he stays

the cycle of oppression that had caused that

Avedon, it soon becomes apparent that he

there even when you are looking down at

poverty in the first place. The people from

is interrogating you, that he is figuring out

the table or across the room at his work.

the west, white backgrounds again, look

more from your questions and your face

The stronger you make your façade against

straight at the viewer, their expressions dour and hollow and empty. It’s true that there are plenty of perfectly happy people living in the western U.S., but what Avedon wanted was a kind of grit, pulled out of its distracting location and revealed for what it was. He found people who fitted with the project he had preconceived. If you look at it as documentary material, it is barren and contrived, but if you look at is as a vision, then it will make you shiver. Just one of the photos in Avedon’s recent Autobiography is of himself, and there is almost no text. The documents of what he has seen, artfully arranged in striking diptychs, are his story; he exists by looking, which is why he looks and looks as if his life depended on it.

him, the more information he takes from it.

“To talk to someone who can pay that much attention to you is perfectly terrifying and also utterly flattering.” than you are figuring out from his invariably charming answers. At some point, he has decided not to dismiss you out-of-hand, so the only other option is to engage totally. You may think that Avedon’s techniques are often manipulative and somewhat unkind, but by the end of an hour his seduction has worked. No matter how controlling you are, you have lost control here. Avedon is

It’s as though you are something cut in half, and he is counting the rings of that surface of the interior. To talk to someone who can pay that much attention to you is perfectly terrifying and also utterly flattering, and after an hour’s resistance, your ego expands into it, and Avedon has won, without even the cumbersome technicality of a camera. “Did Avedon take your picture?” someone asked me after the interview. “He didn’t need to,” I said. —Andrew Solomon


THE IMAGES

A Collection of Avedon’s Work

Jean Shrimpton, Paris, 1965


THE IMAGES

69


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THE IMAGES

71

Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra, New York, 1955


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Veruschka, New York, 1972


THE IMAGES

73


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Left: Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall, Right: Carmen, Paris, 1957


THE IMAGES

Left: Stephanie Seymour, Paris, 1995

75


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Stephanie Seymour, Paris, 1995


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THE IMAGES

79

Pages 74–75: Francis Bacon, Paris, 1979 Above: Marilyn Monroe, New York, 1957


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THE IMAGES

81

Richard Wheatcroft, Jordan, Montana, 1981 and 1983


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THE IMAGES

83

Andy Warhol, New York, 1969


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Left: Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall, Right: Carmen, Paris, 1957


THE IMAGES

85


BEHIND THE CAMERA

87


AVEDON

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