It is amazing, really, the things we take for granted in our lives. For example, when I was a boy growing up in South Bend IN, I had a friend whose parents were much more exceptional people than I’d realized at the time. My friend’s father was an executive with Mercedes-Benz of North America, so I was of course impressed with the occasional rides in the limousines and sports cars he brought home from work. I am the only person I know (except my friends’ parents) who has ever gone for a ride in the legendary 300-SL gull wing car.
But of more lasting influence was having access to a portfolio, bound in black leather, of the famous photographer Richard Avedon (1923—2004). Before they transplanted to the “sticks” of Northern Indiana from New York, my friend’s mother had been a sales representative for Avedon, and the portfolio of Avedon photography samples was ever-present in their living room. I remember at least a couple times when I had spent the night at my friend’s, and I awoke before the rest of the household and occupied myself poring over the great man’s photographs alone.
For a young boy of 12 or 13, it was a very formative experience. It instilled in me an appreciation for Avedon’s sophisticated sense of style and approach to his craft, and it created the lasting impression that no one (no matter how famous or celebrated) is beyond one’s reach—if not directly, then at least one step removed.
Between 1945 and 1965, Richard Avedon worked primarily as a fashion photographer, revolutionizing the craft even as he honed his aesthetic. This is the period of his career that was represented by the bulk of his portfolio which I knew. Later, he moved into journalism and the art world, though some of these images had begun to work their way into the portfolio I knew as a boy.
Little did I then appreciate how, by capturing American ideals of celebrity, fashion, and beauty in the 20th and early 21st centuries, Richard Avedon would help establish photography as a contemporary art form.
From the late 1940s, he began providing images for magazines including Vogue, Life, and Graphis and soon became the chief photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. When Diana Vreeland left Harper’s for Vogue magazine in 1962, Avedon joined her as a staff (and then lead) photographer. In 1957, Hollywood presented a fictional account of his early career in the musical Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire (as the fashion photographer “Dick Avery”). In 1992, he became the first staff photographer for The New Yorker. He was also employed by some of the leading fashion advertisers of the time including Versace, Calvin Klein, Christian Dior, and Revlon.
Avedon did not conform to the standard technique of taking studio fashion photographs, where models stood emotionless and seemingly indifferent to the camera. Instead, he showed models full of emotion, smiling, laughing, and, many times, in action in outdoor settings which was revolutionary at the time. However, towards the end of the 1950s he became dissatisfied with daylight photography and open air locations and so turned to studio photography, using strobe lighting.
As his reputation as a photographer became widely known, he brought in many famous faces to his studio and photographed them with a large-format 8×10 view camera. Avedon’s distinct style of portrait photography is nothing short of iconic. While the portraiture of his contemporaries focused on single moments or composed formal images, his stark lighting and minimalist white backdrops drew the viewer to the intimate, emotive power of his subjects’ expressions. By the 1960s Avedon had turned his energies toward making studio portraits of pop icons, models, musicians, writers, artists, workers, political activists, soldiers, Vietnam War victims, politicians, and his family. He began to branch out and photographed patients of mental hospitals, the Civil Rights Movement, protesters of the Vietnam War, and later the fall of the Berlin Wall.
More than anyone, Richard Avedon and his images epitomize for me high-style American culture in an era fissured by rapid change, discord, and violence.
Groove of the Day
87° and Clear