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Summary Article: Avedon, Richard (1923–2004)
from Encyclopedia of the Sixties: A Decade of Culture and Counterculture

Fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon is famous for his psychologically revealing studies of famous people. Generally regarded as one of the most iconic photographers of the twentieth century, he contributed enormously to 1960s style and art.

Born May 15, 1923, in New York City to women's clothing store owner Jacob Avedon and homemaker Anna Polonsky Avedon, Richard grew up in a family that celebrated fashion. Avedon and his younger sister avidly read fashion magazines as children, and he decorated his bedroom walls with fashion photographs clipped from magazines. Avedon joined the local YMCA camera club in 1935 and began taking photographs using his sister as a model. After graduating high school, he briefly studied sculpture at the Art Students League in New York City before joining the Merchant Marine at the outbreak of World War II. He photographed thousands of other sailors who were headed overseas while stationed in Brooklyn for the duration of the war. The stark, frontal images against a white background would become Avedon's signature style.

In 1945, Avedon became a staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar. Using a Rolleiflex camera, he printed cropped images from the square format. Encouraged by the magazine's editor, he photographed fashion models outside of the usual runway setting. In 1949, Avedon began a decade-long association with Theatre Arts magazine, for which he photographed actors in costume posed not just in character for a play but also in psychologically revealing studies of their own inner natures. This type of candid, unguarded moment became Avedon's signature style of his later celebrity portraits.

By the start of the 1960s, Avedon had gained considerable renown. He spent most of the decade taking fashion photographs and cementing his position as one of the greatest American photographers. In 1962, the Smithsonian Institution held the first museum exhibition of his work. Harper's Bazaar dedicated its entire April 1965 issue to a 20-year retrospective of his work. Avedon left Harper's Bazaar in 1966 after receiving a $1 million per year contract to work for its rival, Vogue. He also freelanced, producing album covers for pop artists Simon and Garfunkel in 1969 and rocker Johnny Winter later that same year. He continued his signature style of portraits on a blank background.

In the 1970s, Avedon photographed victims of the Vietnam War. While photographing antiwar demonstrators at the Capitol in Washington, D.C., he was arrested and jailed for civil disobedience. Avedon became more commercial in the 1980s. At the start of the decade, he created a memorable image of actress Brooke Shields in Calvin Klein jeans and actress Nastassja Kinski with a python slithering across her nude body. He concluded his career as the first staff photographer for New Yorker magazine. Avedon died in 2004 in San Antonio of a cerebral hemorrhage while working on a portrait series of politicians.

Bibliography
  • Avedon, Richard. An Autobiography. Random House New York, 1993.
  • Avedon, Richard. Avedon Photographs, 1947-1977. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux New York, 1978.
  • Neumann, Caryn E.
    Copyright 2012 by James S. Baugess and Abbe Allen DeBolt

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