Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon was born in New York City to a Jewish family. His father, Jacob Israel Avedon, was a Russian-born immigrant who advanced from menial work to starting his own successful retail dress business on Fifth Avenue called Avedon’s Fifth Avenue.

Richard Avedon, born May 15, 1923 and died October 1, 2004, was an American fashion photographer. He was a photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and specialized in the capture of movement in still photographs of fashion, theatre, and dance. According to The New York Times, his fashion and portrait photos helped define America’s culture, style, and beauty over the past half-century.

© The Richard Avedon Foundation

Early Life and education
Avedon was born to a Jewish family in New York City. Avedon’s father, Jacob Israel Avedon was a Russian-born immigrant. He rose from menial labor to open his own successful Fifth Avenue dress shop, Avedon’s Fifth Avenue. Anna Avedon was Richard’s mother. She came from a family with a dress-manufacturing firm. Avedon’s love for photography was sparked when he joined a Young Men’s Hebrew Association’s (YMHA), Camera Club at the age of 12. He used his Kodak Box Brownie to both feed his curiosity and to get away from his own personal life. His father was a harsh and distant disciplinarian who demanded that one be financially strong, educated, and wealthy to make it through life. Louise, his younger sister, was his first muse. In her teens, she was diagnosed with schizophrenia after undergoing psychiatric treatments. Avedon’s early influences from fashion and family would have a profound impact on his life and career. Avedon was often driven to photograph tragic beauty.

The Comforts Portfolio, #02, A Fable in 24 Episodes, Montauk, New York, August 1995.
© The Richard Avedon Foundation

Avedon attended DeWitt-Clinton High School in Bedford Park (Bronx), where he was an editor on The Magpie school newspaper with James Baldwin. Avedon won the Scholastic Art and Writing Award while he was a teenager. After graduating from DeWitt, Clinton that year he enrolled in Columbia University to study philosophy. However, he dropped out of school after only one year. His father had given him a Rolleiflex camera and he began to photograph the Merchant Marines crewmen. Avedon studied photography from 1944 to 1950 with Alexey Brodovitch in his Design Laboratory at The New School for Social Research.

Photography career. In 1944 Avedon was an advertising photographer for a department shop. But, Alexey Brodovitch was quick to endorse Avedon, who was then art director for Harper’s Bazaar. Avedon’s Harper’s career was promoted by Lillian Bassman. His photos began to appear in Junior Bazaar, and then Harper’s Bazaar one year later.

Avedon started taking photographs for magazines like Vogue, Life and other publications in 1946. He quickly rose to become Harper’s Bazaar’s chief photography photographer. He began contributing photographs to Life, vague Look and Graphis in 1950. In 1952, he became the Staff Editor and Photographer for Theatre Arts Magazine. Avedon was not a traditional photographer who took studio fashion photographs. He didn’t have models that were posed in a static pose and appeared to be indifferent. Avedon displayed models in a variety of emotions, including smiling, laughing, and even in action outdoors. This was groundbreaking at the time. He became frustrated with open-air photography and daylight photography towards the end the 1950s and turned to studio photography using strobe light.

Lauren Hutton, sweater by Van Raalte, Great Exuma, The Bahamas, October 1968.
© The Richard Avedon Foundation

Avedon was hired by Diana Vreeland in 1962 to be her staff photographer. Avedon was promoted to lead photographer of Vogue. He photographed all the covers between 1973 and 1988, when Anna Wintour became editor-in-chief. He also shot the Calvin Klein Jeans campaign, which featured Brooke Shields as a 15-year-old. He also directed her in the television commercials. Avedon was first to work with Shields for a Colgate toothpaste commercial in 1974. Avedon shot Shields for Versace, 12 American Vogue covers, and Revlon’s Most Unforgettable women campaign. Avedon wrote in the February 9, 1981 issue of Newsweek that Brooke was a lightning rod. She brings out the anger people feel about the decline of contemporary morality, and the destruction of innocence around the world. Interview magazine, May 1992: Shields said that Avedon intimidates many people when he walks into the room. He is so creative and sensitive when he is working. He doesn’t like when anyone is there or speaking. He clicks the shutter and there is mutual vulnerability as well as a moment when they fuse. It’s either you get it or not.

Avedon continued his fashion work and began making studio portraits in the 1960s of civil rights workers, politicians, and cultural dissidents from various stripes. Avedon’s photographs were taken in America, a nation divided by violence and discord. Avedon began to photograph patients in mental hospitals, Civil Rights Movement activists in 1963, as well as protesters against the Vietnam War and the fall of Berlin Wall.

Nastassja Kinski, actress, Los Angeles, June 14, 1981.
© The Richard Avedon Foundation

A personal book called “Nothing Personal,” with a text by his high school classmate James Baldwin, appeared in 1964. Avedon also produced two sets of well-known portraits of The Beatles. The first was shot in 1967 and became one of the most famous rock poster series. It featured five psychedelic portraits featuring the Beatles. These included four individually solarized colour portraits and a black-and white group portrait. The Beatles LP included more subtle portraits in 1968. Avedon photographed them again the following year. Avedon photographed Electric Light Orchestra in 1973 with all its members showing their bellybuttons to record On the Third Day.

Avedon was always curious about how portraiture captures the soul and personality. He began photographing famous people in his studio, using an 8×10-inch view camera. Buster Keaton was photographed with Marian Anderson, Ezra Pound (Isak Dinesen), Dwight D. Eisenhower and Andy Warhol. His portraits are distinctive by his minimalist style. They feature the subject looking straight at the camera in front a plain white background. Avedon eliminated the need for props and soft lights, which allowed him to be more focused on the inner worlds his subjects. This enabled him to elicit emotions and reactions. Avedon could sometimes provoke emotions from portrait subjects by asking them probing psychological questions or leading them into uneasy areas. These methods allowed him to capture aspects of his subjects’ personalities and character that are not normally captured by other photographers.

Avedon’s murals featured iconic figures such as Andy Warhol, The Factory players and stars, and The Chicago Seven, political radicals accused of conspiracy to incite an riot at 1968 Democratic National Convention. The Mission Council is a group made up of military and government officials who managed the United States’ participation during the Vietnam War.

New York Life #19, Central Park West, New York, November 17, 1949.
© The Richard Avedon Foundation

Avedon created a series of clever advertisements for Christian Dior in 1982, which was based on the concept of film stills. These photographs featured Andre Gregory, Vincent Vallarino, Kelly Le Brock, and director. The colour photographs were intended to depict the wild antics of a fictional Dior family, a trio of menage a trois, while still wearing elegant clothes.

Avedon was the first New Yorker staff photographer in 1992. His post-apocalyptic, wild fashion fable, “In Memory of Mr. and Mrs. Comfort, featuring Nadja Auermann as a model and a skeleton was published in 1995. There were many other images for the magazine. These included the first publication in 1994 of previously unpublished Marilyn Monroe photos, as well as a striking rendering of Christopher Reeve in a wheelchair and nude photographs Charlize Theron’s 2004. His portraits of Hillary Clinton, Toni Morrison and John Kerry are some of his most controversial New Yorker portraits. He continued his contributions to Egoiste in his later years. His photographs were published from 1984 to 2000. Avedon took the cover photos of Hikaru Utada, a Japanese-American singer’s album Addicted To You in 1999.

Annie Leibovitz, photographer, names Avedon as a major inspiration. She describes Avedon’s style as “personal reportage”, which is a way to build a relationship with your subjects.

In the American West The cover of Avedon’s book In the American West (1985).
Avedon’s large prints often measure over three feet high, which is one of his strengths as a photographer. Avedon’s large-format portraits of western Americans, including cowboys, miners and drifters, became a bestseller and a traveling exhibit called In the American West. It is considered Avedon’s greatest work in portrait photography and is considered to be his masterpiece.

Avedon suffered from severe heart inflammations in 1974. Avedon was forced to create a compelling collection by looking at things from a different perspective after this difficult time. Mitchell A. Wilder (1913-1979), director of Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum, asked him to complete the “Western Project” in 1979. Wilder wanted the project to show Avedon’s view of the American West. Avedon’s career was transformed when he emphasized everyday working-class subjects like miners who were dirty in their work clothes, housewives and farmers on larger-than life prints. Instead of focusing on famous public figures or the grandeur and openness of the West, this project became a turning point. The five-year project culminated in an exhibition and a catalog. Avedon and his team were able to photograph 762 people, and expose around 17,000 sheets 8×10 Kodak TriX Pan film. Avedon admitted that the collection revealed a story in his subjects’ innermost selves, something that would not have been possible if his sense of mortality from severe heart conditions and ageing had not occurred. Avedon visited the state fair rodeos, carnivals and slaughterhouses in order to identify subjects. Avedon returned to his subjects in 1994 to talk about In the American West aftermath, and its direct consequences. Billy Mudd was a trucker who spent long periods on his own, away from his family. Before Avedon allowed him to take his portrait, he was depressed, lonely, and disconnected. Mudd was shocked to see Avedon’s portrait for the first times. He revealed something about Mudd which allowed him to realize the need to make changes in his life. Mudd was transformed by the portrait and he decided to quit his job to be with his family.

Avedon: Darkness and Light is a 1996 American Masters documentary by Helen Whitney. It shows an aging Avedon who identifies In the American West with his greatest body of work. Avedon wanted to find new dimensions in himself. He was a Jewish photographer from East who documented the lives of prominent public figures to an older man trying to uncover the inner-worlds and stories of his rural Western subjects.

Avedon faced problems in sizing quality printing papers during the production period. Avedon tried platinum printing but eventually settled on Portriga Rapid. This double-weight, fibre-based gelatin-silver paper is manufactured by Agfa–Gevaert. Each print was meticulously created, requiring an average of thirty-to forty manipulations. As artist proofs, two exhibition sets of In the American West were produced. One set was to be kept at the Carter and the other to be used by the artist to travel to the six remaining venues. The printing process took nine months and covered approximately 68,000 square feet (6.300 m2) of paper.

Although In the American West is Avedon’s most famous work, critics have often criticized it for voyeuristic themes and exploiting his subjects. Critics ask why a photographer who has been primarily focused on public figures and models would travel to the West to photograph the suffering and hardship of the working class. Avedon’s intent is to provoke and influence condescending emotions in the viewer, such pity.

The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Convention, Mayflower Hotel, Washington, D.C., October 15, 1963.
© The Richard Avedon Foundation


Avedon hosted many museum exhibitions all over the globe. In 1970, his first major retrospective took place at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. In 1978 and 2002, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York presented two solo exhibits. The University Art Museum, Berkeley organized a second retrospective in 1980. Major retrospectives were held at the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York (1994) and the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art in Humlebaek (Denmark), 2007; the latter hosted a series of major retrospectives. The curators also travelled to San Francisco, San Francisco, Paris, Berlin and Amsterdam from 2007 to 2009. The International Center of Photography, 2009, presented Avedon’s work, from his earliest sun-splashed photos in 1944 to portraits that show his fashion fatigue in 2000. The Corcoran Gallery of Art also presented Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power in 2009. This exhibition brought together Avedon’s political portraits for first time

Art Market
Christie’s achieved a record price for a seven-foot high print of Dovima in 2010. It was a rare, seven-foot tall image of Dovima posing in a Christian Dior evening gown with elephants from Paris’ Cirque d’Hiver in 1955. Maison Christian Dior purchased this print, which is the largest of the image, in 1978 to commemorate Avedon’s fashion retrospective at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Sunny Harnett and Alla, evening dresses by Balmain, Casino, Le Touquet, August 1954.
© The Richard Avedon Foundation

Personal life and death. In 1944 Avedon married Dorcas Marie Nowell (19 year old bank teller), who became the actress and model Doe Avedon. They did not have any children and split in 1949. Family and colleagues have attested to Avedon’s bisexuality. They lived in Cherry Grove, Fire Island. Nowell’s departure left Avedon devastated.

He married Evelyn Franklin in 1951. She died March 13, 2004. John Avedon, their son, was born to them. He has written extensively on Tibet.

Avedon bought a former carriage house in Manhattan’s Upper East Side to serve as his studio and apartment. He purchased a house with four bedrooms on a Montauk estate of 7.5 acres (3.0 ha). It was located between the Atlantic Ocean, Montauk Nature Preserve, and was sold for nearly $9 million in 2000.

Avedon’s nephew Loren Avedon, a martial arts actor.

Avedon’s great-grandson is Michael Avedon, a photographer.

Avedon confided to Norma Stevens (the long-time studio director), about his homosexual relationships. Avedon also had a decade-long affair, according to Stevens.

Avedon, who suffered complications from a cerebral hemorhage on October 1, 2004, died in San Antonio, Texas. Avedon was in San Antonio filming an assignment for The New Yorker. He was working on Democracy, which focuses on the run-up for the 2004 U.S. Presidential election.

Avedon created the Richard Avedon Foundation, a private foundation that operates. It was established shortly after Avedon’s death in 2004. The foundation, based in New York is the repository of Avedon’s negatives, publications and papers. Avedon’s personal collection, which was displayed at the Pace/MacGill Gallery in New York and the Fraenkel Gallery in San Francisco, was on display from 2006 to raise funds for the Avedon Foundation. The collection featured photographs by Edward Steichen, Man Ray, Martin Munkacsi and Edward Steichen. Eye of the Beholder: Photographs from the Collection of Richard Avedon (Fraenkel Gallery) is a slim volume that collects the majority of the collection. It consists of five booklets: “Diane Arbus”, “Peter Hujar”, and “Irving Penn”, which include 19th- and twentieth-century photographers.

This article was written by © Christopher G – Narrating Images..

Author: Christopher G

I'm a professional documentary style photographer, and digital image retoucher!

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