Richard Avedon (May 15, 1923 – October 1, 2004) was an American photographer. An obituary published in The New York Times said that „his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.”
In 1944, Avedon began working as an advertising photographer for a department store, but was quickly discovered by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director for the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Lillian Bassman also promoted Avedon’s career at Harper’s. In 1945 his photographs began appearing in Junior Bazaar and, a year later, in Bazaar itself.
In 1946, Avedon had set up his own studio and began providing images for magazines including Vogue and Life. He soon became the chief photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. From 1950 he also contributed photographs to Life, Look and Graphis and in 1952 became Staff Editor and photographer for Theatre Arts Magazine. Avedon did not conform to the standard technique of taking fashion photographs, where models stood emotionless and seemingly indifferent to the camera. Instead, Avedon showed models full of emotion, smiling, laughing, and, many times, in action. Towards the end of the 1950s he became dissatisfied with daylight photography and open air locations and so turned to studio photography, using strobe lighting.
When Diana Vreeland left Harper’s Bazaar for Vogue magazine in 1966, Avedon joined her as a staff photographer. He proceeded to become the lead photographer of Vogue and photographed most of the covers from 1973 until Anna Wintour became editor in chief in late 1988. Notable among his fashion advertisement photograph series are the recurring assignments for Gianni Versace, starting from the spring/summer campaign 1980. He also photographed the Calvin Klein Jeans campaign featuring a fifteen year old Brooke Shields, as well as directing her in the television commercials. Avedon first worked with Shields in 1974 for a Colgate toothpaste ad. He shot her for Versace, 12 American Vogue covers and Revlon’s Most Unforgettable Women campaign. In the February 9, 1981 issue of Newsweek, Avedon said that „Brooke is a lightning rod. She focuses the inarticulate rage people feel about the decline in contemporary morality and destruction of innocence in the world.” On working with Avedon, Shields told Interview magazine in May 1992 „When Dick walks into the room, a lot of people are intimidated. But when he works, he’s so acutely creative, so sensitive. And he doesn’t like it if anyone else is around or speaking. There is a mutual vulnerability, and a moment of fusion when he clicks the shutter. You either get it or you don’t”.
In addition to his continuing fashion work, by the 1960s Avedon had turned his energies toward making studio portraits of civil rights workers, politicians and cultural dissidents of various stripes in an America fissured by discord and violence. He began to branch out and photographed patients of mental hospitals, the Civil Rights Movement in 1963, protesters of the Vietnam War, and later the fall of the Berlin Wall. An exceedingly personal book called “Nothing Personal,” with a text by his high school classmate James Baldwin appeared in 1964. During this period, Avedon also created two famous sets of portraits of The Beatles. The first, taken in mid to late 1967, became one of the first major rock poster series, and consisted of five striking psychedelic portraits of the group — four heavily solarized individual color portraits (solarisation of prints by his assistant, Gideon Lewin, retouching by Bob Bishop) and a black-and-white group portrait taken with a Rolleiflex camera and a normal Planar lens. The next year he photographed the much more restrained portraits that were included with The Beatles in 1968. Among the many other rock bands photographed by Avedon, in 1973 he shot Electric Light Orchestra with all the members exposing their bellybuttons for recording, On the Third Day.
Avedon was always interested in how portraiture captures the personality and soul of its subject. As his reputation as a photographer became widely known, he brought in many famous faces to his studio and photographed them with a large-format 8×10 view camera. His subjects include Buster Keaton, Marian Anderson, Marilyn Monroe, Ezra Pound, Isak Dinesen, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Andy Warhol, and the Chicago Seven. His portraits are easily distinguished by their minimalist style, where the person is looking squarely in the camera, posed in front of a sheer white background. Avedon would at times evoke reactions from his portrait subjects by guiding them into uncomfortable areas of discussion or asking them psychologically probing questions. Through these means he would produce images revealing aspects of his subject’s character and personality that were not typically captured by others.
He is also distinguished by his large prints, sometimes measuring over three feet in height. His large-format portrait work of drifters, miners, cowboys and others from the western United States became a best-selling book and traveling exhibit entitled In the American West, and is regarded as an important hallmark in 20th century portrait photography, and by some as Avedon’s magnum opus. Commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, it was a six-year project Avedon embarked on in 1979, that produced 125 portraits of people in the American west who caught Avedon’s eye. His mural groupings featured emblematic figures: Andy Warhol with the players and stars of The Factory; The Chicago Seven, political radicals charged with conspiracy to incite riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention; the Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his extended family; and the Mission Council, a group of military and government officials who governed the United States’ participation in the Vietnam War.
Avedon was drawn to working people such as miners and oil field workers in their soiled work clothes, unemployed drifters, and teenagers growing up in the West circa 1979-84. When first published and exhibited, In the American West was criticized for showing what some considered to be a disparaging view of America. Avedon was also lauded for treating his subjects with the attention and dignity usually reserved for the politically powerful and celebrities. Laura Wilson served as Avedon’s assistant during the creation of In the American West and in 2003 published a photo book documenting the experiences, Avedon at Work, In the American West.
In 1982 Avedon produced a playfully inventive series of advertisements for fashion label Christian Dior, based on the idea of film stills. Featuring a stock cast of models and actors, the color photographs purported to show scenes from the life of a fictional „Dior family,” whose members managed to wear elegant fashions even when wrestling on a couch.
Avedon became the first staff photographer for The New Yorker in 1992, where his post-apocalyptic, wild fashion fable “In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort,” featuring model Nadja Auermann and a skeleton, was published in 1995. Other pictures for the magazine, ranging from the first publication, in 1994, of previously unpublished photos of Marilyn Monroe to a resonant rendering of Christopher Reeve in his wheelchair and nude photographs of Charlize Theron in 2004, were topics of wide discussion. Some of his less controversial New Yorker portraits include those of Saul Bellow, Hillary Rodham Clinton, Toni Morrison, Derek Walcott, John Kerry, and Stephen Sondheim. In his later years, he continued to contribute to Egoïste, where his photographs appeared from 1984 through 2000. In 1999, Avedon shot the cover photos for Japanese-American singer Hikaru Utada’s Addicted to You.