Richard Avedon

Photographer to the fashionable and famous

Created date

July 20th, 2018
Richard Avedon photographed Judy Garland in this famous picture in New York City in 1963.

Richard Avedon photographed Judy Garland in this famous picture in New York City in 1963.

Chances are you’ve seen at least one of his photographs at some point. Richard Avedon was among the most transformative figures in the history of the camera.

Throughout his 60-year career, he blazed a trail in nearly every genre of photography—commercial, fashion, editorial, and fine art. All of his images, regardless of the composition, captured his subject’s character, emotion, and, certainly, their story.

Virtually anyone was picture-worthy in his eyes, and he had a sixth sense for reading people visually. It was a real gift that distinguished Avedon as a person and a professional.

In Avedon: Something Personal (Spiegel & Grau, 2017), his longtime studio director and collaborator Norma Stevens has produced a candid memorial to an artistic genius. Few knew him better.

For three decades, she worked alongside Avedon. Perhaps his closest confidant, he once described Stevens as “the soul and engine of my working life and my great friend.”

Such sentiment was high praise coming from someone who had no shortage of admirers.

The world’s political and cultural illuminati were well acquainted with his portfolio. If he photographed you, it generally meant you’d either made it big or possessed qualities that inspired him.

Early years

His grand reputation notwithstanding, though, this legendary photographer hailed from fairly humble roots. Avedon was born May 15, 1923, in New York City to a middle-class Jewish couple.

A Russian immigrant, his father Jacob owned a dress shop on Fifth Avenue; his mother Anna came from a family of well-established dressmakers.

Given his parents’ sartorial background, Avedon rather naturally cultivated an intense interest in art and fashion. At age 12, he joined a photography club at the local Young Men’s Hebrew Association.

Avedon began experimenting with his new medium using a borrowed Kodak box camera and enlisting his sister’s help as a model. He quickly realized photography was his true mode of expression.

During an early ‘90s television interview, he remarked how he had always been fascinated by what he could see. “I think I’ve been arrested on a visual level,” he said. “How did the world start? There was light…[then] later, mountains and rivers and people.

“All of our impressions of the world are formed before words.” This statement aptly defined Avedon’s life view.

His eyes were like lenses.

Following high school, he spent a year at Columbia University as a philosophy major. But unable to resist his undying attraction to the camera, he dropped out and became a photographer for the Merchant Marine.

After his discharge in 1944, Avedon returned to New York to study photography and design under Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Brodovitch saw tremendous potential in the 21-year-old aspiring photographer and began giving him paying projects on a regular basis at Harper’s.

Unique approach to fashion photography

By the 1950s, he was on the magazine’s payroll, shooting the newest fashion designs at runway shows in Paris. Avedon’s groundbreaking style abandoned the traditionally static, mannequin-like compositions of the day.

He relied heavily on a model’s facial expressions to add depth to the dresses featured in his photos. Furthermore, he traded the usual outdoor scenery for a stark white backdrop in his studio.

Avedon gained a reputation as the preeminent fashion photographer and soon found himself doing portraits of everyone from President Dwight D. Eisenhower and First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy to Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, and the Beatles.

In addition to Harper’s, he was a star photographer at Vogue and The New Yorker. But Stevens’ biography goes far beyond a mere look at Avedon’s life behind the camera.

On the contrary, their close relationship gives her a level of unique, personal insight. The result is a fascinating tapestry of the stories behind the stories.

The book’s descriptions of Avedon’s photo sessions with figures such as Presidents Jimmy Carter and Ronald Reagan, as well as First Lady Hillary Clinton, make it a delightful read.

Stevens has written a fitting tribute to her partner, who died in Texas in 2004 while shooting a spread for The New Yorker.

To be sure, the 81-year-old photographer had lived a full life.