The work of photographer Richard Avedon stands out for his ability to capture the unique personality in each of his subjects. During the 1950s Avedon worked as a photographer for fashion magazines including Harper’s Bazaar; despite working for bland commercial magazines at the time he managed to create a series of stunning photographs of men and women that seemed to catch something of his subject’s inner lives and what made the individual unique. The fact that he was able to wrap these substantive images in a style that was elegantly minimalist ensured his success not only in this decade but in future years to come. The French critic and philosopher Roland Barthes saw Avedon’s work as providing seven gifts: the truth, character, vocation, beauty, death, past, and promise of his subject.
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Richard Avedon was born in New York City to a Jewish-Russian family. He came to his calling very early in life both in terms of photography as his medium and portraiture as his major genre. He began his photographic career at age 10 with a neighbor of his grandparents, the pianist and composer Sergey Vasil’evich Rakhmaninov. As a teenager he attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he was Editor-in-Chief of Magpie, DeWitt Clinton’s literary and art magazine with American novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin as its literary editor.
At the age of 19 after a brief period of attending Columbia University he joined the Merchant Marine where he received professional training in photography, taking identification pictures of the crewmen with a Rolleiflex camera that was given to him by his father. Avedon continued with photography upon his return at The Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research where Alexey Brodovitch the art director of Harper’s Bazaar was an instructor. Avedon also developed his skills photographing his sister Louise who was two years younger than himself. Avedon became a professional photographer at the end of World War II and from 1946 to 1965 was a regular contributor to Harper’s Bazaar. Brodovitch saw the potential of Avedon’s private work, but rejected his first shoots for Harper’s on the grounds that they were too similar and predictable. In 1966, Avedon left Harper’s Bazaar to work as a staff photographer for Vogue magazine. 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. From 1992 until his death on October 1st, 2004 he created portraits for “The New Yorker” magazine that hover somewhere between fashion shoots and political art.
Avedon in his assessment of his own work has tended to downplay this sense of honesty that he draws from his subjects, but it is something that cannot be denied. He is interested in unique personalities, not in socially and culturally approved mannerisms and stereotypes. While this has always been a hallmark of his work, it is especially striking when one looks at his work from the 1950s. This is due in large measure to the fact that he was so very much in the avant-garde: Other photographers would catch up to him, but during the 1950s he was one of the few photographers working within the world of commerce to be able to bring both such technical brilliance and such a sense of psychological depth to his subjects.
Although he has always been very much in command of his own style, Avedon has also always been very much a product of his temporal milieu, and his work can be seen to benefit directly from the work of several photographers who, during the decades of the 1920s and ’30s, created a style of photography that was more realistic and also somewhat grimmer, a style of photography that was philosophically in tune with a world that had been in essential ways diminished by World War I.
Among the important influences on Avedon – and indeed to some extent on his entire generation – was Edward Steichen. Steichen had actually served as the aerial photography commander for the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War, and when he returned to civilian life he had shed the impressionistic style that had marked his work before the war. His new work, which was focused on celebrity portraits, had a sharp, rather unforgiving edge to it. His portraits in “Vogue” and “Vanity Fair” have about them something of the edgy quality of Avedon’s work. In both cases, the photographers seemed intent on trapping their subjects in a moment of time, a strategy that tended to emphasize the impermanence of the subject and of human life rather than suggesting the timeless quality of the photographic image itself.
We can also see in Avedon’s work a clear influence of the great manipulator of light Edward Weston. Like Steichen, Weston too turned from a pictoralist, softened view of the world in his photographs to a more realistic one in the years after World War I. In part this was a question of a change in his philosophy. But it was also the direct result of his changing the technical way in he worked, adjusting traditional methods of working with a view camera to achieve a great depth of field while avoiding the use of any artificial light.
Avedon has not been as stringent in this avoidance of the use of artificial light, but his works retain the quality of being lit naturally: They appear (and even though this may sometimes be an artifice it is a very convincing one) to have been created without artificial light. This combination of the appearance of the naturally lit subject with a hard-edged elegance gives a dualistic quality to the work of Weston and even more so to that of Weston: The subjects appear to be both innocent as well as, if not exactly guilty, at least deeply knowledgeable.
Finally, one must list among the important predecessors for Avedon’s style Ansel Adams who, influenced by Paul Strand’s beautifully detailed shots of the natural world, decided to make photography his own calling and produced some of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century. The subject matter of Adams and Avedon is in general strikingly different, for while Avedon was making celebrity portraits Adams was celebrating the unimaginable beauties of the great natural places. And yet there is a similarity if one looks beyond the obvious differences in subject, for Avedon photographs his subjects with the same attention to surface detail that Adams gave to his landscape. In both cases, the photographers seem to be suggesting that judging a book by its cover might not in fact be such a bad idea after all, for the detail of a surface provides clues by which to interpret what lies beneath.
Other photographers influenced Avedon as well, passing on to him their own influenced from the world of abstract art that was growing tremendously in importance in the years just after World War I. Photographers like Stieglitz and those cited above opened up to distinctly different pathways for the photographers who came after them. The great strength of Avedon’s work is that he refused to choose between these divergent paths, preferring instead to combine the two orthodoxies. As photography in many ways came of age in the 1950s in the commercial arena, Avedon was one of the first artists to demonstrate the possible breadth of the medium; he would consistently refuse to compromise on the potential of the form.
Much of what marks Avedon’s work as so powerful is that is never sought to objectify his subjects, something that was especially striking in the 1950s when images of women were concerned. He, as he tells us below in his own words, seeks to create an image in which the subject has an active role:
A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. The way someone who’s being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer’s response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about.
This awareness of his subjects as nearly equal – and perhaps even fully equal – partners in his photographic portraits gives them vibrancy. It also matched a growing sense among women in the 1950s that their personal sense of agency was being eroded.
Avedon was abetted in creating fashion photographs that did not reduce women to ruffles by some of the designers of the era, who also recognized that once women had been running factories during World War II there would be no way to retire them permanently to the kitchen.
Christian Dior’s New Look of the full skirt and cinched waist, introduced in 1947, dominated the 1950s. The designs reflected women’s return to the role of wife and homemaker after having done “men’s work” in industries and jobs during the war. According to Dior, he aimed to counteract the wartime style in which “women looked and dressed like Amazons.” Instead, he envisioned “flower-like women” in “clothes with rounded shoulders, full feminine busts and willowy waists above enormous spreading skirts.” Of course, women who followed this style did not necessarily endorse Dior’s definition of femininity. Moreover, while popular culture idealized women’s domesticity, rising numbers of women began to work outside the home. Beneath the seemingly tranquil 1950s bubbled a social revolution that erupted in the next decade.
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We can see in both Avedon’s own statement about the art of portraiture as well as in Dior’s sense of the ways in which women wished to present themselves to the world a sense of agency that would burst forth again in the 1960s and 1970s. Other photographers might present women in the 1950s as submissive. But Avedon would never depict his women in this way, so unsure of where they were headed. His women look us in the eye, and while they may do so from the pages of fashion magazines, we are never in the slightest inclined to doubt their individuality and power.
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