The past 100 years has seen many great fashion photographers, but only an influential handful have been creative enough to have altered the course of the profession itself. First there was Edward Steichen, whose pioneering work in the early part of the 20th century essentially created the discipline. Then in the 1970s, Helmut Newton and Guy Bourdin brought their own unique brands of sexuality and surrealism to the art form, helping redefine its purpose and push its artistic limits.
But in 1946, a young, inexperienced photographer working for Harper’s Bazaar changed fashion photography forever. His name was Richard Avedon and his bold new approach that displayed movement and spontaneity on the streets of post-war Paris challenged long-held notions about both style and concept.
Throughout a distinguished career that spanned almost six decades, he continuously innovated and is widely considered to be one of the architects of modern photography. His work went beyond the pages of fashion magazines, tackling various social issues from the Civil Rights movement to mental illness and the Vietnam War.
In this installment of Know Your Photographers, we take a look back at the life and career of Richard Avedon.
The New Movement
So far-reaching is Richard Avedon’s influence on the world of fashion photography that his oppressive shadow looms large over the entire industry. His work in Paris for Harper’s Bazaar in 1946 represented such a seismic shift in aesthetic that it is regarded by many to be fashion photography’s big bang moment.
Avedon’s great innovation was to utilize the natural movement of his models in order to capture clothing in motion, thus allowing him to show shape, weight and texture like never before.
This approach was at complete odds with long-established ideas of how to take a fashion photograph. Previously photographers stuck rigidly to Steichen-esque principles that dictated dramatic lighting, opulently ornate sets and models to pose like grand marble statues. But Avedon paid no attention to the old guard and their intransigent methods, opting instead to create a new model for a post-war audience.
His street scenes showcased a vivacity and youthfulness that imparted a sense of immediacy on the viewer, and the fleeting instances he documented were both unique and ephemeral. As soon as the camera’s shutter snapped shut the moment disappeared, imbuing his images with an urgency that was sorely missing from his predecessors’ overly-calculated work.
‘In the American West’
Although the Harper’s Bazaar years helped to establish Richard Avedon as a leading photographer of the day, for many his most important work occurred some 30 years after his embryonic Parisian beginnings. In a five-year study, he and his team took to the small towns, county fairs and and forgotten backwaters of America’s Mid-West. The work, published in the 1985 book In the American West, studies the characters and individuals he met along the way.
Its focus is on the workers, drifters, oddballs and loners that inhabit flyover country. The soiled clothing and weather-beaten faces that stare uncomfortably back at the camera show Avedon as a master portrait photographer, a man obsessed with faces and the stories each one had to tell.
Although In the American West shows a tenderness of touch, there is a distinct narrative that runs through the images. The aim, it would seem, is to portray this section of society as forgotten, downtrodden and vulnerable in the style of American photographic greats such as Paul Strand and Dorothea Lange.
At times the poignancy is palpable. Billy Mudd, a lonely trucker who spent many months at a time away from his family, is depicted topless, his fixed gaze defiantly belying his inner torment. On seeing the published image, Mudd realized where his priorities lay and packed in his job in order to spend more time with his family.
But for Avedon, photography is a tool by which to manipulate an audience, a way to tell his own story. The iconic image, “Bee Man of Orion,” shows a topless man covered in a swarm of bees. A statement on the type abnormal behavior brought about by the West’s economic and social exclusion? An example of how even in the ’80s, circus freak show acts were the only way for some to generate an income? No, it was an elaborate set-up with advertisements placed in local bee keeping magazines asking for a model who wished to work with a “world-famous photographer.”
Some see In the American West as a deception, a callous and contrived way for Avedon to push his own views via his images. But his work shouldn’t be seen as dishonest; more a testament to his storytelling ability. For Avedon, the photographs he took were his way of communicating an idea or thought. “The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion,” he once said. “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
The Portraiture of the Artist As a Young Man
In the American West was Avedon at his finest and part of what gave the images such impact was his skill as a portrait photographer. He had honed this ability through many years of practice, photographing preeminent cultural, political and religious figures as varied as Marilyn Monroe, Ronald Reagan and the Dalai Lama.
His eye for composition was incredibly astute, but it was his ability to delve into his subjects’ minds and dig at their inner emotions that was his real talent. It has been said that he had a certain vulnerability behind the camera that rubbed off on his sitters, but he also employed various other techniques to get the shot he wanted.
Often he would stand in front of a subject, calmly shooting frame after frame on his Rolodex camera, quietly asking probing questions. He would ask them to think about God and contemplate their own deaths, all the while shooting, watching for subtle changes in facial expression, waiting for the right moment to strike.
Richard Avedon was also not afraid to push the limits of what portrait photography should constitute. In a particularly harrowing set of pictures released in his 1976 book, Portraits, there is a study of his father’s battle with cancer.
The chronologically-arranged photos show the destruction of the mind and body of the man, his face evidently exhausted by the struggles with his illness. Perhaps most disconcertingly, it shows a man grappling with the idea of his own mortality. This was Avedon at his most unflinching, honest and exploitative best.
Early Life and Rise to Fame
Born in New York in 1923, Avedon was the son of two dressmakers and his early interest in art and fashion was eagerly encouraged by his parents. At the age of 12, he joined a camera club and began regularly taking photographs using the families Kodak camera.
Initially he used his new found skill working for the Merchant Marines, taking ID shots of the crewmen with a Rolleiflex camera his father had given him as a gift. But when he began studying photography at the New School for Social Research in New York City, everything changed.
His teacher, the renowned Harper’s Bazaar art director Alexey Brodovitch, would go on to become one of the most influential people in Avedon’s professional life. Not only did he teach him revolutionary techniques regarding composition and layout, he also gave him his first opportunity to work at Harper’s Bazaar.
With the help of legendary figures such as Diana Vreeland and Carmel Snow at the magazine, Richard Avedon was encouraged to pursue his new-found skill set. After his triumph in Paris, he continued to shoot street scenes, obsessed with capturing rare and unusual moments found in everyday life.
Circuses fascinated him and he loved to use the performers in their elaborate costumes as backdrops for his fashion work. An image from August 1955, shot at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, has since become one of the most famous fashion photographs of all time. “Dovima with Elephants” is a study in composition and contrast.
The two large beasts, with rough, wrinkled skin have been paired with the elegant, angelic model, whose tiny stature could easily be crushed by a wayward leg. Power, grace, style and femininity are all on show in an image from a man confident in his ability to turn his visions into reality. Avedon, the perennial perfectionist, said that the shot would always be a failure to him as the sash of Dovima’s Dior dress falls to the ground instead of to her left.
Civil Rights, Mental Illness and the Vietnam War
As the ’60s began, Avedon’s focus once again shifted. He came into criticism for his guest edited edition of Harper’s Bazaar in which he featured numerous black models. This, coupled with a $1m contract offered by Vogue, saw him leave the publication he had been with for two decades.
The change of magazine was reflected in his subject matter. He expanded the remit of his work beyond fashion and became increasingly interested in documenting new topics such as the Vietnam War. Although a radical shift, his storytelling ability coupled with a journalistic approach proved to be a winning combination. He focused on all sides of the conflict, from the American troops on the ground to Vietnamese victims of napalm attacks.
Despite receiving many plaudits, he ultimately felt he could never match the artistry of prominent war photographers such as Eddie Adams and Nick Ut. Nevertheless, he returned to America with a new found desire to capture the social struggles of his homeland.
First there was the American Civil Rights movement with his lens focusing on the southern states during a time of great racial upheaval. His documentarian approach saw him take insightful portraits of civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King and Malcom X as well as segregationists such as the divisive Alabama Governor, George Wallace.
He later tackled mental illness, an area that had interested him ever since his sister was diagnosed with schizophrenia early on in her life. Traveling to mental institutions around America, Avedon’s honest portrayal of the patients exposed the often cruel reality of their existence.
The success and critical acclaim he received during this period once again justified his belief in the importance of photography as a tool for social good.
The ’70s and ’80s saw a return to fashion photography and his campaigns for Versace have since become iconic thanks to their empowerment of women and vivid use of color. His work with Calvin Klein helped define the brand’s minimalist image, as well as introducing the world to model Brooke Shields.
Showing his aptitude for commerce, he turned a 1981 photograph of Nastassja Kinski with a boa constrictor entwined around her naked body into a poster and sold over two million copies.
Suffering from ill health throughout his later years, he sadly died of a cerebral hemorrhage in Texas whilst on assignment for The New Yorker in 2004. During his lifetime, he showed that he was a man eager to learn, document and disseminate. Not only was he a pioneer, but he continually challenged the very notion of his craft, tackling complex social issues alongside fashion work, never constrained by subject matter or expectation.
Most importantly, he changed the public’s perceptions of photography, expanding its artistic potential perhaps more than anyone before or since.
Now check out our Know Your Photographers installment focusing on Mario Testino.