Photographer, 1944--. Staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar, 1945-65; staff photographer for Vogue magazine, 1966-70; staff photographer for the New Yorker, 1993--. Work has also appeared in Life, Look, Vanity Fair, and other publications. Exhibitions of photographs include those at Museum of Modern Art, Whitney Museum, Marlborough Gallery, and Metropolitan Museum of Art, all in New York City; Fogg Art Museum, Cambridge, England; Smithsonian Institution and National Gallery of Art, both in Washington, D.C.; Aron Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX; and elsewhere in the United States, Europe, Japan, and Canada.
Selected awards: Named photographer of the year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers, 1985; lifetime achievement award from Fashion Designers of America, 1989; Erna & Victor Hasselblad Foundation photography prize, 1991.
Born May 15, 1923, in New York, NY; son of Jacob Israel (a clothier) and Anne (Polonsky) Avedon; married Dorcas Nowell (a model), 1944 (divorced); married Evelyn Franklin, 1951; children: John. Education: Studied photography at New School for Social Research, New York, NY.
No one has done more to revolutionize the fashion industry than photographer Richard Avedon. For nearly half a century Avedon set standards for and wielded his considerable influence over the course of American fashion photography. He helped to define and create the sensuous, fantasy-provoking imagery that revolutionized the fashion industry and made it a billion-dollar business. Newsweek contributor Charles Michener wrote of Avedon's work: “Few images have done so much to define our conception of beauty, color our ideas of fun and inform our erotic imagination. [An] Avedon show is a playful distortion of history, a document of the ever-changing impulse of taste. By raising the question of how to be beautiful, it dramatizes the more important issue: how to live.”
In addition to his prolific output of fashion spreads, Avedon spent a half century creating photographic portraits of both famous and anonymous individuals. Heads of state from all over the world sat before his camera, as did unemployed drifters, carnival hands, and mental patients. These portraits--many of them unflattering, menacing, or disturbing in tone--form the backbone of many of his exhibitions and publications. Time magazine critic Richard Lacayo noted that Avedon had “perfected a mordant style of portraiture that mocks the earthly vanity his fashion shots glorify…. The results can be pitiless. With every wrinkle and sag set out in high relief, even the mightiest plutocrat seems just one more dwindling mortal.”
Both Avedon's fashion work and his portraits helped to elevate magazine photography to the level of an art form. He began his career in the twilight of World War II and presided over an era that marked a new appreciation for the artistic aspects of commercial photography. Such prestigious institutions as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City and the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, have mounted major retrospectives of Avedon photography, recognizing that aspects of national culture can be revealed as readily in the pages of Vogue magazine as it can be on a painter's canvas or from a storyteller's pen.
Avedon was born in New York City on May 15, 1923. His father, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who grew up in a Manhattan orphanage, operated a successful clothing store on Fifth Avenue. His mother was a sculptor. As a very young man Avedon enjoyed upper-middle-class privileges such as a spacious home on Long Island and carriage rides with doting maternal grandparents. On the other hand, Avedon had to contend with his hard-working father, who felt youngsters should learn firsthand how difficult life could be. Young Richard was given an allowance but expected to account for each expenditure at the end of the week. He was encouraged to think of a future in business, rather than a future in any artistic endeavor. Not surprisingly, Avedon learned to keep his thoughts to himself or to share them only with trusted confidantes like his younger sister and his cousins.
When the Great Depression hit America in 1930, the Avedon fortunes were gravely affected. Business declined at the clothing store, and the family was forced to move back to an apartment on New York's Upper East Side. Avedon was actually happier there. He and a cousin spent hours at their grandparents’ apartment building, listening to neighbor Sergei Rachmaninoff practice the piano. They also wrote poetry and submitted it for publication to little magazines and newspapers. Avedon also enjoyed taking snapshots of his sister Louise. “Her beauty was the event of her life,” the photographer told Newsweek. “She became the prototype for my first fashion models--a white-skinned, long-throated brunette.”
Avedon attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, but he described himself in Newsweek as a “tuned out” student who forged his report cards and “flunked hygiene.” He was more interested in his hobbies: photography and writing. At the age of 13 he was a member of a photography club, and in high school he served as the editor of the school literary magazine. Avedon told Newsweek that he experienced a kind of epiphany as a teenager one night when he was walking in Manhattan with his father. “One evening my father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the store windows,” he said. “In front of the Plaza Hotel, I saw a bald man with a camera posing a very beautiful woman against a tree. He lifted her head, adjusted her dress a little bit and took some photographs. Later, I saw the picture in Harper's Bazaar. I didn't understand why he'd taken her against that tree until I got to Paris a few years later: the tree in front of the Plaza had that same peeling bark you see all over the Champs-Elysees.”
The enthusiasm Avedon felt for photography kept blooming. Finally, when he was 19, he received a Rolleiflex camera from his father as a gift. Avedon took the camera with him when he enlisted in the Merchant Marine in 1942. He spent part of World War II taking thousands of identification pictures for the Merchant Marine personnel from a base in Brooklyn. Occasionally he put to sea to photograph shipwrecks, but otherwise he was confined to port throughout his two-year tour of duty.
After leaving the Merchant Marine in 1944, Avedon set his sights on a career in professional photography. He convinced the management of the Bonwit Teller department store to loan him some clothes for a free-of-charge fashion shoot, then hired a top-name model with money he had saved from his wartime pay. The gamble was a success; the store managers liked the pictures and offered him more work. Concurrently, Avedon studied photography under Alexey Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research. Brodovitch, the art director for Harper's Bazaar, urged his students to pursue elements of surprise, shock, and change in their work. Brodovitch detected in Avedon the seeds of genius where this technique was concerned. The teacher was particularly impressed with a shot of twin brothers Avedon had taken during his Merchant Marine days, in which one brother was sharply in focus and the other completely out of focus. Brodovitch suggested Avedon bring that same sort of photographic tension to his fashion shots.
All told, Avedon made 14 trips to Harper's Bazaar before the magazine accepted any work from him. Finally he sold them a six-page spread done at a local beach with models he knew as friends. The spread was a complete departure for staid Harper's Bazaar. Not only were Avedon's models not wearing gloves, they were actually cavorting in the sand, barefoot and carefree. The concept was shocking to the fashion industry at first, accustomed as it was to static studio poses. Viewers delighted in the style, however. All the possibilities of fun and fantasy that have since become associated with fashion photography were born in the work of the young Avedon.
A correspondent for Petersen's Photographic magazine wrote: “Avedon took his models out of the showrooms and into the backrooms, where seamstresses fussed over hems; or into city streets, where the rough and common did not alienate, but somehow combined to make fashion exciting, dangerous, and somehow, even more glamorous.” By 1945 Avedon had found his way onto the staff of Harper's Bazaar. He took his crew and his models all across the globe for Shoots--to Egypt and the Pyramids, to Paris, to beaches and ships, anywhere that appealed to his fertile imagination. By the mid-1950s he was so well known that companies were using him to create ad campaigns for everything from makeup and jewelry to beer and airplanes.
By 1965 the “Avedon Look” was established, with scores of imitators. Avedon was the reigning prince of fashion photography, a tireless worker who could lift obscure models into brilliant careers. He forged professional links with the most beautiful and accomplished women in the modeling profession. During his early years he helped make Dorian Leigh, Dorothy Horan (“Dovima”), and Suzy Parker famous. He later worked with Twiggy, Lauren Hutton, and Brooke Shields, whose Calvin Klein blue jeans spots were considered racy even by 1980s standards. Avedon certainly played a role in the creation of the “supermodel”--the model-celebrity epitomized in Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford (also in Newsmakers 93). Michener remarked on the photographer: “Over the years, he has wiped the mascara off the fashion world by getting the first black model and the first nude celebrity into the pages of Harper's Bazaar--not to mention launching the bikini boom with a Suzy Parker shot in 1959.”
Avedon became a staff photographer at Vogue magazine in 1966. Even before that he had begun his practice of taking haunting portrait photos of famous people; he found the Vogue assignment particularly productive in this respect. Few celebrities in any field escaped his lens. He photographed authors, painters, and dancers; politicians and military leaders; musicians and singers; and, of course, film stars. Some of these portraits--done as they were in sharp focus against a white background--have been attacked as voyeuristic and deliberately cruel for their unsparing attention to unflattering detail. In his defense, Avedon told Petersen's Photographic: “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 happening, and he has a certain real power over the result.”
Avedon's passion for portrait photography reached its zenith with his collection of Western photographs, released to exhibition in 1985. Although he had always done portraits of unknown people with particularly compelling histories, he turned to that pursuit full-scale for his Western show, “In the American West.” This series, which took years to produce, features stark portraits of factory workers, miners, oil field workers, drifters, and carnival employees. Louise Todd described the work in Atlantic: “Although the pictures bear stylistic similarities to Avedon's earlier work, they are a departure in subject matter--no glamorous models or well-known artists here. These people are all workers who were spotted by Avedon at country fairs or rodeos or oil rigs and photographed because they had some indefinable allure. The exquisite prints in the exhibition show us every seam in their clothes, every bit of grease under their fingernails, every line creasing their faces.”
“Fashion is where I make my living,” he told Newsday. “I'm not knocking it; it's a pleasure to make a living that way.” Michener noted that over the years, as Avedon's work progressed, “you become aware of a double-edged sensibility at work--one that winks at fashion (and our weakness for chic) even while celebrating it.” Still, Avedon preferred to think of himself as a portrait photographer, the work he personally found most satisfying. He told Newsweek: “I'm interested in people who are defined by their accomplishments. It may be an enormous presumption, but I know more about the uncommon than the common man. I'm interested in people under stress, people who are living very close to the edge.”
In 1992 Richard Avedon became the first-ever staff photographer for the New Yorker magazine. His presence on the staff there was part of the ambitious plan to retool the publication for the 21st century. Avedon, who said his greatest accomplishment was simply the fact that he had shot pictures almost every day for well over 40 years, claimed in Newsday that he wanted to continue to work until he was “a very old man in a terrific wheel chair.”
A retrospective of the photographer's career traveled to London and was shown at the National Portrait Gallery from 1994 to 1995. The Metropolitam Museum of Art in New York gave Avedon a major retrospective in 2002. Later in life, he devoted considerable time to nurturing young photographers. He was respected and well liked, despite his demands for perfection from his students. In 2004, still shooting for the New Yorker, Avedon was in San Antonio, Texas, photographing the “On Democracy” project. He had a stroke and died October 1.