Richard Avedon was one of the all-time-great fashion photographers. For decades after his emergence onto the scene in 1946, he was a dominant influence on the industry thanks to the energy, imagination and willingness to take risks that he brought to his work.
Fashion was where Avedon made his name. It was also his undoing – at least in his own mind. He came to regard it as “merely” commercial, whereas what he really wanted was to be, and be seen as, a serious artist. So he turned his attention to portraiture, using fashion commissions to fund his endeavours.
But such was Avedon’s reputation in the field of fashion that despite all his efforts it continued to dominate his image for most of his career.
Avedon – fashion and portraiture, two sides of a coin
At first sight, Avedon’s portraits seem to be the polar opposite of his fashion work. A distinguishing characteristic of a typical Avedon fashion shot is its energetic high spirits. By contrast, what distinguishes many Avedon portraits is the bleak, unflinching, often inquisitorial dissection of his subjects’ vulnerabilities. His portraits are rarely kind, let alone flattering. More than occasionally, they shock his subjects.
But look more closely and you’ll discover a dark seam of existential angst running through Avedon’s fashion work too. He’s all too aware that beauty can be isolating and that it fades. You can see that in the expression of Dorian Leigh as she looks at herself in the mirror in a photo taken in 1949 at the beginning of Avedon’s career. Pathos is more to the fore in his 1955 shot of Dovima with Émilien Boulione and a clown. But nowhere is his existential angst more explicit than in In Memory of The Late Mr and Mrs Comfort, a harrowing editorial for the November 6, 1995 issue of The New Yorker.
In an interview quoted in Avedon Fashion 1944–2000, he traces the underlying anxiety in his fashion work back to his experience as a boy growing up in a home dominated by women:
I watched the way in which they prepared themselves to go out, what clothes meant, what makeup meant, what hair meant, what men meant. That anxiety was a very important thing that I tried to work into the magazines. And very often they [the photos] were rejected.
Avedon – the great storyteller
Another common denominator between Avedon’s fashion and portrait studies is drama and stories. Throughout his life, he never passes up an opportunity to go to the theatre, the ballet and the movies. He’s also an avid reader. All this helps to provide inspiration and fuel his own creativity
The stories are most evident in his fashion editorials, especially the iconic series of images he creates for Harper’s Bazaar to showcase the Paris collections, and which in the process help transform the image of the city after World War II. In A Woman Entering a Taxi in the Rain, an article published in the November 8, 1958 issue of The New Yorker, Winthrop Sargeant remarks:
His leading lady must always be involved in a drama of some sort, and if fate fails to provide a real one, Avedon thinks one up. He often creates in his mind an entire scenario suggested by a model’s appearance. She may be a waif lost in a big and sinful city, or a titled lady pursued in Hispano-Suizas by gentlemen flourishing emeralds, or an inconsolably bored woman of the world whose heart can no longer be touched – and so on. Avedon models play scene after scene from these scripts, and sometimes helps out by actually living an extra scene or two. The result is extraordinary for its realism – not the kind of realism found in most photography but the kind found in the theatre.
The mood of those shots might feel improvised, but the shoots themselves are far from spontaneous. They take a great deal of preparation: research into locations, sketches of proposed shots and test photos. On the day, Avedon coaxes and cajoles his models into the personas and poses he has in mind, chatting to them, joking with them and, crucially, telling them the stories he wants them to act out. He’s a bundle of energy, enthusiasm and inspiration and he won’t take no for an answer.
Hiro, once upon a time an assistant of Avedon, says:
Dick was the most brilliant of all the flashes that illuminated my professional path. His impatience was an inspiration in itself. The preparation he made for each sitting, the perfectionism – sharp, like a scalpel. And then the way he directed. His personality, which helped him clinch every shot. His timing. This man created the modern woman – the Avedon Woman.
In Avedon’s portraits, the drama is in the eyes, faces and expressions of his sitters, usually accentuated by ascetic, plain white backgrounds. More often than not the drama is dark, and not just by coincidence. Before the shoot, Avedon researches his subject and forms a view of what he wants his portrait to convey. And he seems inexorably drawn to his sitter’s vulnerabilities and failings – the skull beneath the skin.
He’s fond of telling a story of how he took his celebrated photo of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The challenge: find a way of getting them to drop their guard – the happy, smiling “Ladies Home Journal cover faces” they would present for their portrait in contrast to the expressions he’s seen as he stalked them at the casino. He wants his portrait to reveal their “loss of humanity.” When he turns up at their NYC apartment for the shoot, he notices their pug dogs, which they adore. So he sets everything up, gets the couple into position and says, “If I seem a little hesitant, a little disturbed, it’s because my taxi ran over a dog.” Both of their faces drop, he clicks the shutter and catches the expression he’s looking for.
It turns out that this story might itself be made up. Either way, it gives us an insight into the store Avedon sets by stories. It also illustrates another aspect of what Avedon is like and how he captures images like no others – he is an arch manipulator, charismatic and ruthless, who knows what he wants from a shoot and also how to get it.
That applies not just to individual shoots but also to Avedon’s legacy and the brand he is determined to create for himself. He’s perfectly prepared to edit his archive, destroying photos that don’t fit with the narrative he wants to create for himself. And when he talks about his experiences, it’s not always clear where fact ends and fancy begins. Indeed, according to Norma Stevens, his studio manager:
Dick would sometimes make merry with the facts—he even joked that if he ever wrote an autobiography he would call it Here Lies Richard Avedon. He said, “There is no truth, no history – there is only the way in which the story is told.”
Avedon – the Hollywood connection
Not only do many of Avedon’s fashion shoots seem to come straight out of a movie, they even inspire one. Funny Face is based loosely on the exploits of Avedon and his first wife, Doe, played by Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Avedon is retained as a consultant for the movie, revealing some of his working methods, providing tips on lighting and on Audrey Hepburn’s wardrobe, and creating title credits and backgrounds plus a montage of freeze-framed fashion.
Funny Face and Avedon’s work as a stills photographer for The Prince and the Showgirl (1957) and Some Like It Hot (1959) bridge his fashion and portrait work, with one of his greatest portraits being of Marilyn Monroe lost in thought.
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 and the white wine was over and the dancing 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.
On a lighter note is Avedon’s virtuoso shoot – witty, stylish, extravagant – with Marilyn for the Christmas 1958 issue of LIFE magazine. The idea is to recreate the images of five stars from different eras. With his interest in theatre and the movies, this is right up the photographer’s street.
In every age the entertainment world produces an enchantress who embodies the fancies men dream by – the places they might have visited with her, music danced to with her, suppers shared with her. In the Gay Nineties, it was Lillian Russell, 160 opulent pounds of curvy Victorian womanhood. Then it was Theda Bara, representing all the women who came bursting from their stays in World War I with predatory eyes and heavy make-up into the new freedom. Afterward there was Clara Bow and Marlene Dietrich and Jean Harlow. Heiress today of the fabled five is Marilyn Monroe. On the following pages, in a stunning feat of re-creation, Marilyn impersonates her predecessors in their most enduring images.
The images here are scans of vintage black and white prints sent to a Hollywood producer, whereas the published versions are in colour.
Avedon – fashion photography’s great innovator
One of the things that makes Avedon such a key figure in fashion photography is his ability to stay ahead of the curve. Fashion is by its nature so ephemeral that few photographers manage to remain current for more than about a decade. Avedon, almost uniquely, manages to evolve his approach to tap into the zeitgeist and reflect the changing times in which he lives. Perhaps that’s because he sees it as an important aspect of his remit.
I believe that the photographer’s job is to record the quality of the woman, of that moment he is working… Our job is always to report on the woman of the moment. The way she lives, the way she dresses. Our conception of beauty changes and is always changing.
Almost from the off, Avedon is pushing at the boundaries, getting his models to act rather than just pose, using blurred movement and soft focus when sharp focus and detail are what’s expected. According to Winthrop Sargeant, that was just the beginning:
The model became pretty, rather than austerely aloof. She laughed, danced, skated, gambolled among herds of elephants, sang in the rain, ran breathlessly down the Champs-Elysées, smiled and sipped cognac at café tables, and otherwise gave evidence of being human.
Some Avedon admirers date the turning point in his style from a celebrated photograph he made for Harper’s Bazaar in 1950, in which Dorian Leigh was shown bursting into laughter while throwing her arms around the winner of a French bicycle race. The picture created a sensation in the profession, since embracing sports heroes and laughing had not previously been thought suitable activities for fashion models, and the extent of its influence soon became clear as models began to appear everywhere embracing bicycle riders, matadors, coachmen, and Lord knows what else, in a state of hilarity. Next, Avedon, again a good jump ahead of the pack, started photographing models with handsome young men posing as their husbands, and then—most revolutionary of all—models wheeling children in perambulators or, to make the family scene complete, dangling them in baskets gaily held by the father, too.
It’s not so easy for us now to appreciate quite how startling Avedon’s work is for people at the time. Over several decades, particularly the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, he helps to define and advance accepted notions of beauty as well as pushing the limits of what’s acceptable in a fashion magazine (for example, his photo of Countess Christina Paolozzi topless in the January, 1962 issue of Harper’s Bazaar). Landmark shoots include:
- Harper’s Bazaar, January, 1959 – China Machado, the first non-Caucasian model to shoot the collections and feature on the cover.
- Harper’s Bazaar, September, 1962 – inspired by the coverage of Elizabeth Taylor’s affair with Richard Burton, the autumn collections shot as if by paparazzi and laid out like a pulp magazine.
- Harper’s Bazaar, December, 1963 – Rebecca Hutchings, the first black model to appear in the magazine.
- Harper’s Bazaar, January, 1965 – set in Ibiza, an editorial implying a ménage à trois.
- Harper’s Bazaar, April, 1965 – a far-out mash-up of pop culture, space age and high fashion shot and edited by Avedon and billed as “a partial passport to the off-beat side of Now.”
- The New Yorker, November 6, 1995 – In Memory of The Late Mr and Mrs Comfort, a dark and satirical fashion editorial starring Nadja Auermann and a skeleton in a tale of decadence and death.
Avedon – his achievement
The second half of the 20th century and the beginning of the 21st were a time of social, political and cultural change. Avedon’s fashion work as well as his portraits are a commentary on those decades, probing and revealing what power and wealth, confidence and vitality, deprivation and helplessness look like and what they do to people – a unique legacy of penetrating and iconic images.
This piece is mainly about Avedon as a fashion photographer, but that’s not the half of it. Additionally, he created a whole series of influential advertising campaigns, the most notable of which starred 15-year-old Brooke Shields modelling a pair of Calvin Klein skin-tight jeans. He branched out into film and video. He initiated ambitious and important projects – In the American West is a great example. He ran a sizeable studio, which among other things acted as a kind of academy, training and inspiring generations of photographers. And through his exhibitions and books he helped raise the status of photography to challenge that of painting and sculpture in the minds of curators, collectors and the public at large.
Few photographers have the determination, the courage and the insightfulness to challenge themselves and their sitters to the extent that Avedon did. That is at the heart of his greatness.
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Here are four videos to watch here and a link to a fascinating and illuminating conversation between Philippe Garner and Michael Avedon, Richard’s grandson at ShowStudio. Plus, a handful of books worth looking up:
- Avedon Fashion 1944–2000 by Vince Aletti, Carol Squiers and Philippe Garner is outstanding for both the images and the accompanying essays.
- Richard Avedon: Made in France by Judith Thurman presents a collection of images made in Paris for Harper’s Bazaar during the 1950s, reproduced to the exact scale of the engraver’s prints made for Avedon, uncropped, on their original mounts, with all of the artist’s notations on both front and back.
- An Autobiography: The Photographs of Richard Avedon is a major retrospective of images chosen by Avedon himself. There is hardly any text.
- Norma Stevens’ and Steven Aronson’s biography, Avedon: Something Personal is a compelling and insightful portrait, laced with reflections on the great man by people who knew and worked with him. Bear in mind, though, that many of the details are disputed and it’s inconceivable that the author remembered her conversations with Avedon verbatim.
- What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon by Philip Gefter.
- Focus: The Secret, Sexy, Sometimes Sordid World of Fashion Photographers by Michael Gross provides a context in which to assess Avedon’s achievements in the field of fashion photography.