And if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible.
Considered one of the greatest photographers of the 20th century, Richard Avedon is known worldwide for his provocative fashion photography and minimalist portraits of some of the most important figures of our time. In a career spanning over sixty years, he was capable of constant stylistic reinvention while also demonstrating a vision that surpassed the narrow confines of fashion photography.
Born on May 15, 1923 in New York City, Avedon was immediately inspired by his parents’ clothing businesses, taking a great interest in fashion as child. At age 12, he joined the Young Men’s Hebrew Association Camera Club. As he grew up his interest in fashion and photography continued, but he found a new passion in poetry during his high school years. Upon graduation, Avedon enrolled at Columbia University to study philosophy and poetry. However, he dropped out after one year to serve in the US Merchant Marine during World War II. During this time, he served as a Photographer’s Mate Second Class, which found him taking identification portraits of sailors.
Upon leaving the Merchant Marine in 1944, Avedon enrolled at the New School for Social Research in New York City to study photography. It was here he studied under the acclaimed art director of Harper’s Bazaar, Alexey Brodovitch. The two hit it off and within one year, Avedon was hired as a staff photographer for the magazine. The job would lead him to covering spring and fall fashion collections in Paris. He soon began developing a style of black-and-white photographs showcasing the latest fashions in real-life settings such as cafes and cabarets. His signature look of a seamless white background for his fashion and portrait photography, which would come later in his life, was partly inspired by Brodovtich’s use of “white space,” which made the subject seem suspended and weightless on the page.
Perhaps his most iconic image of the time was in 1955, when he staged a photo shoot at a circus featuring model Dovima. The photo entitled “Dovima with Elephants” has gone on to become one of the most recognized images in fashion history and has been shown in museum exhibitions around the world.
Interestingly, while Avedon loved creating fashion photographs, it was his portrait work that he was most fond of. In the 1960s he turned his energy towards making studio portraits of civil rights workers and politicians involved in the plight of an America divided by race and violence. His portraits were heralded for capturing the essential humanity and vulnerability in figures such as Marilyn Monroe, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Dwight D. Eisenhower. In 1969, he shot a series of Vietnam War portraits which featured American soldiers and Vietnamese napalm victims.
There’s always been a separation between fashion and what I call my “deeper” work. Fashion is where I make my living. I’m not knocking it. It’s a pleasure to make a living that way. It’s pleasure, and then there’s the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits. It’s not important what I consider myself to be, but I consider myself to be a portrait photographer.
Avedon left Harper’s Bazaar in 1965, and from 1966 to 1990 he worked as a photographer for Vogue. His fashion photographs captured the freedom, excitement, and energy of fashion as it entered an era of transformation and popularization.
In addition to his black-and-white work, Avedon is known for working with a large-format 8×10 view camera to help capture his subjects. His work is easily distinguished by its minimalist style and is void of the use of soft lights and props. He would elicit the expressions from his subjects by guiding them into uncomfortably areas of discussion or probing them with psychologically infused questions. It was this approach that allowed him to capture real emotions and reactions in his photographs. This raw emotion and candor was a stark contrast to his work in fashion where he tended to glamorize the people in his photographs.
Other notable accomplishments for Avedon include being the first staff photographer for The New Yorker, being the inspiration for the 1957 film “Funny Face” starring Fred Astaire, winning Commercial Television Director of the Year by Adweek Magazine, and being recognized by Photo District News as one of the ten most important photographers in the world. A career littered with dozens of accomplishments in both fashion and portrait work, Avedon would continue pushing the boundaries of the photographic medium up until his death in 2004.
Richard Avedon’s work can be viewed at numerous exhibitions around the world or by purchasing many of the books he released over the years. His book, Avedon Fashion 1944-2000, covers decades of outstanding fashion work and includes glimpses at the creative process behind some of his most iconic images. His books can be purchased via Amazon and I have compiled a list below to make them easy to find. They are highly recommended reading for anyone interested in pursuing a career in fashion photography or looking to create portraits with real emotion.
All images are ©Richard Avedon and his estates
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