“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
- Richard Avedon
Though he is known mostly for his minimalistic portraits; intense and often brooding subjects surrounded by white, it was the world of fashion that provided the backdrop that helped make Richard Avedon one of the most celebrated, controversial and sought after photographers of all time. Fashion photography simply didn’t exist before Richard Avedon, not modern fashion photography at any rate. Before Avedon, fashion photography was static and flat, models were stiffly dressed and rigidly posed. Avedon took fashion out of the studio and into the streets. He injected movement, life and a vitality where none had existed before. If a particular scene he wanted did not exist, Avedon created it, building sets, bringing in models, or, as was often the case, enlisting the help of onlookers or passers by. Avedon was both an ardent observer and a passionate creator, fascinated with what he called “the human quality”. It was this fascination that led him to constantly explore and reinvent what it meant to be a photographer and an artist. For nearly 60 years, from Paris fashion to celebrity portraits to a five year project chronicling the working class people and drifters of the American West, Richard Avedon not only defined generations of photography, but also inspired countless photographers to look to his work to bring life to their own. Irving Penn once said of Avedon “I stand in awe of Avedon. For scope and magnitude, he is the greatest of fashion photographers. He’s a seismograph.”
Born in 1923 in Manhattan, Richard Avedon was just 21 years old when his photographs first appeared in Harper’s Bazaar. He had dropped out of high school and joined the Merchant Marine, where he served as a photographer.”I must have taken pictures of maybe 100,000 baffled faces,” Avedon once said, “before it ever occurred to me that I was becoming a photographer.” Upon returning, he was hired as a photographer for a department store. His work was seen by Alexy Brodovitch, the art director for Harper’s Bazaar, who saw something unique in Avedon’s work. “His first photographs for us were technically very bad”, Brodovitch remembers. “But they were not snapshots. It had always been the shock-surprise element in his work that makes it something special.” Brodovitch would go on to play an enormous role in Avedon’s life and career, serving alternately as mentor, father figure and friend. Avedon soon became chief photographer for the magazine and, by 1946, owned his own studio and was also shooting for Vogue and Life.
Avedon constantly challenged himself as an artist, and throughout his career he explored other genres of photography outside of fashion that would inspire him to grow as a photographer. Yet, despite photographing the Vietnam War or the Civil Rights Movement, it was portraiture that captured Avedon’s interest. Often containing only a portion of the person being photographed, Avedon’s portraits seem intimate in their imperfection.
One of Avedon’s great gifts as a photographer was his ability to set his subjects at ease and, in turn, create vulnerable, intimate portraits, often of celebrities such as Katherine Hepburn, Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor, many of whom were otherwise very distant and inaccessible. As he refined his portraiture, he began to strip away any distractions beyond the subject, which led to the his minimalist style of shooting against a stark, white background. “I’ve worked out of a series of no’s,” Avedon said. ”No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative…I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us.” It was from those many no’s that a yes would emerge, and that yes was the photograph.
In 1979, Avedon began work on a project that he regarded as the best work of his career. He had become seriously ill as a result of an inflammation of the heart. He visited the West to recuperate and began to photograph what would become a five year project called In The American West, in which Avedon chronicled the people of the West. He photographed drifters, loners, and ordinary people like factory workers, ranchers and coal miners. Avedon was in his 60s and felt he was entering what he called “the last great chapter”. He viewed the project as a reaction to or an identification of his own mortality. The project received decidedly mixed reviews. Some applauded the project for its “unrelenting vision”, while others condemned it as exploitation and “falsifying the West”.
Richard Avedon died of a brain hemorrhage on October 1st, 2004, while shooting an assignment for The New Yorker. Though he has taken some of the most famous portraits of all time and his photographs are included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery, London. Major retrospectives of his work have been held at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Amon Carter Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago, it is his willingness to challenge himself as both photographer and as an artist, and to alway be refining a unique style that was all his own, that made him an icon for more than 60 years in an industry he helped to define.