American fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon, above, shaped society’s views regarding fashion, beauty and culture over the last half-century perhaps more than any modern photographer, and is one of history’s greatest artists. Born 91 years ago yesterday, he worked at a feverish pace up until his sudden death from a cerebral hemorrhage on October 1, 2004 at the age of 81.
Now, 10 years after his death, his work is still as relevant as it was when he was alive, or perhaps even more so. In an age of digital photography and photo manipulation, Avedon’s creativity, skill and intuition surpass most modern photographers that I have studied…And his work was so groundbreaking and unique that it defies imitation.
Avedon’s associations with high fashion are immediately identifiable, specifically due to his remarkable style of photography which involves the braiding of haute couture with a curious twist, as seen above in these portraits taken in 1955 of his model and muse Dovima, wearing Dior at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris.
Nowadays you just don’t see this kind of powerful dichotomy in fashion photography–an ethereal beauty in the finest of couture, posing as would a prima ballerina, and co-existing with quiet grandeur–giant circus elephants, chained down in their dirty environment, their majestic trunks mirroring the curves of statuesque Dovima’s graceful limbs. Shots like these don’t just happen. They are the result of years of learning and experimenting, and of course, boundless talent.
Avedon became chief photographer for Harper’s Bazaar in the late forties, under the direction of the legendary Alexey Brodovitch. In 1966 he left Harper’s Bazaar for Vogue. But Avedon spoke casually about his brilliance. “Fashion is where I make my living,” he stated. “Then there’s the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits,” he added.
And Avedon’s portraits are not just his passion; they are his forté. But especially in his fashion shots there is the element of intimacy and understanding consistent with fine portraiture, as evidenced above in this photo of Dovima with her dog, Sacha. Her cloche and suit by Balenciaga, photographed in Café Des Deux Magots, Paris, in August 1955. The moment is neither premeditated nor completely spontaneous, and that is what makes it so magical.
This magic is most obvious when he captures a peculiarly candid moment, revealing the contemplative expressions of his subjects, with whom he fully engages. “My portraits,” he said, “are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.”
Avedon shot this iconic photo for Harper’s Bazaar in 1950 with the model dressed in Balenciaga, and she possesses the same type of wistful grace as that of Dovima, the Prima Ballerina of Models.
Above, Dovima is pictured in a cape ensemble by Lanvin-Castillo, and photographed at Place Francois-Premier in Paris, August 1955.
Avedon’s body of work is consistently disarming and most of it is brilliantly captured in stark black and white. I had a photography professor in college who lectured on achieving greatness in the vocation. He quoted Canada’s famous photojournalist Ted Grant, who said, “When you photograph people in color you photograph their clothes. When you photograph people in black and white, you photograph their souls,” and this was a technique that Avedon knew all too well. Shot after shot in bold black and white documents what the eye cannot see–he exposes the souls of his subjects, and with a hidden agenda: to understand and experience a more remote side of life, such as a sliver of authentic Americana, for example. In so doing, Avedon passes this understanding along to a hungry audience.
And now, here are a few of Avedon’s most notable portraits, some of celebrities and some of the working class, but all capturing an authenticity and an often poignant humanity of his subjects.
Marilyn Monroe with husband Arthur Miller, New York, May 8, 1957. Avedon called this “The Happy Sitting.”
Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent, June 14, 1981.
“When you look at the photograph it all looks so easy,” Avedon said. “[But] she spent two hours on a cement floor naked. The snake…the trainer would start anchoring the snake with her ankles and see where the snake would go, hoping that the snake, cause there is no talking to the snake, would creep up in a way that was beautiful. Meanwhile she would roll back, she’d roll forward, the snake trainer would come and move the snake from one body part to another, I would catch pictures from his legs flying out of the frame, with he being in the frame, the snake was going up, it was really, sort of fashion hell,” Avedon said. However, this ‘fashion hell’ sold two million copies when Avedon put the image on a poster.
Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker. Omaha, Nebraska, 1979. Richard Avedon’s portraits are typically shown with emotionless expressions, in very large, passport-style portraits of great detail and high resolution, like the images of the slaughterhouse worker above, and the rest of the photographs below.
Ronald Fischer, bee keeper, 1981. In 1981 farmer and beekeeper Ron Fischer answered an ad in a national beekeeping journal seeking a man or woman willing to be photographed with bees by a “world-famous photographer.” That photographer turned out to be Richard Avedon.
To get the bees to land on Fischer, a university entomologist he was acquainted with patted queen bee pheromone (an attractant for other bees) onto several spots on Fischer’s head and chest. Then, about 200 feet away, packages of bees were opened on the ground. The bees detected the pheromone and began to move.
Fischer still remembers watching the swarm of bees heading his way. “They started forming a cloud over my head,” he said. Above, Avedon works with Fischer on the shoot.
Boyd Fortin, Sweetwater, Texas, 1979.
This image shows a 13-year-old rattlesnake skinner.
“Faces are the ledgers of our experience,” Avedon stated. “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph,” he added, “it is no longer a fact but an opinion.”