The Photography Legends come back on the blog with Richard Avedon whose fashion and portrait photographs helped define America's image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century
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About the Artist
Richard Avedon (May 15, 1923 – October 1, 2004) was an American fashion and portrait photographer born in New York City.
His interest in photography began at an early age, and he joined the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) camera club when he was twelve years old. He would use his family's Kodak Box Brownie not only to feed his curiosity about the world, but also to retreat from his personal life, and his first muse was no one else than his younger sister, Louise.
He attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he co-edited the school’s literary magazine, The Magpie, with James Baldwin. He was named Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools in 1941.
Avedon joined the armed forces in 1942 during World War II, serving as Photographer’s Mate Second Class in the U.S. Merchant Marine. As he described it, “My job was to do identity photographs. I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer."
After two years of service, he left the Merchant Marine to work as a professional photographer, initially creating fashion images and studying with art director Alexey Brodovitch at the Design Laboratory of the New School for Social Research.
In 1946, Avedon had set up his own studio and began providing images for magazines including Vogue and Life. He soon became the chief photographer for Harper's Bazaar and in 1952 became Staff Editor and photographer for Theatre Arts Magazine.
Avedon did not conform to the standard technique of taking studio fashion photographs, where models stood emotionless and seemingly indifferent to the camera. Instead, Avedon showed models full of emotion, smiling, laughing, and, many times, in action in outdoor settings which was revolutionary at the time.
However, towards the end of the 1950s he became dissatisfied with daylight photography and open air locations and so turned to studio photography, using strobe lighting.
Avedon was fascinated by photography’s capacity for suggesting the personality and evoking the life of his subjects. He registered poses, attitudes, hairstyles, clothing and accessories as vital, revelatory elements of an image.
He had complete confidence in the two-dimensional nature of photography, the rules of which he bent to his stylistic and narrative purposes. As he wryly said, “My photographs don’t go below the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues.”
After guest-editing the April 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon quit the magazine after facing a storm of criticism over his collaboration with models of color. He joined Vogue, where he worked for more than twenty years.
In 1992, Avedon became the first staff photographer at The New Yorker, where his portraiture helped redefine the aesthetic of the magazine. During this period, his fashion photography appeared almost exclusively in the French magazine Égoïste.
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Notable among his fashion advertisement series are the recurring assignments for Gianni Versace, beginning with the spring/summer campaign 1980. He also photographed the Calvin Klein Jeans campaign featuring a fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields, as well as directing her in the accompanying television commercials.
In addition to his continuing fashion work, by the 1960s Avedon was making studio portraits of civil rights workers, politicians and cultural dissidents of various stripes in an America fissured by discord and violence.
He branched out into photographing patients of mental hospitals, the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, protesters of the Vietnam War, and later the fall of the Berlin Wall.
In 1976, for Rolling Stone magazine, he produced “The Family,” a collective portrait of the American power elite at the time of the country’s bicentennial election. From 1979 to 1985, he worked extensively on a commission from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, ultimately producing the show and book "In the American West".
Photographer Annie Leibovitz names Avedon as a major influence, describing his style as ‘personal reportage’, developing close rapport with one's subjects.
"A portrait is not a likeness," Richard Avedon said at the time of "In the American West. "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."
After suffering a cerebral hemorrhage while on assignment for The New Yorker, Richard Avedon died in San Antonio, Texas on October 1, 2004. He established The Richard Avedon Foundation during his lifetime.
To see more of Richard's work:
All photographs ©️️The Richard Avedon Foundation
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