Richard Avedon’s name and his photos used to be a synonym to the glossy, fashion photography. Celebrities dreamt of appearing in the focus of his camera because it was paramount for the heroes of the magazine’s gossip pages. Avedon called his photo technique a reductionism – cutting off any tinsel and all non-essential elements in his art; his manner – “brevity of the perfectionist,”; and his gaze was compared to a bolt of lightning. His works are familiar to you, even if you do not remember the name of their creator: black and white gamma, a minimum of unnecessary details in the frame – only people.
Richard Avedon had a talent to turn people into “symbols of themselves.” He photographed many of his famous contemporaries (politicians like Dwight Eisenhower and Hillary Clinton, artists like Pablo Picasso and Andy Warhol, celebrities like Charlie Chaplin and Bjork). Avedon never hesitated to focus his camera on ordinary people too. He traveled from ocean to ocean to make portraits of unknown fishermen and miners, waitresses, and truckers.
His works are a dialogue with the model, the viewer, with himself. “My portraits are more about me than about subjects of my photography.” Not everyone liked his unusual and passionate approach to filming, but he certainly did not leave anyone indifferent. So who was he, the “creator of celebrities,” with whom an entire era in the history of fashion photography is connected? Let’s take a look at the early period of Richard Avedon’s life, starting with his Harper’s Bazaar appearance till the late 50s.
Childhood in style
Richard Avedon was destined to connect his life with fashion and style. He was born in New York, where his father had a women’s clothing store on Fifth Avenue. Young Richard spent a lot of time while leafing fashion prints like Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue. “I started photographing when I was a teenager. My first model was my little sister, and I’ve tried to copy the beautiful photos from the glossy magazines made by Steichen, Munkachi, and Maine Ray. Louise was amazing with perfect skin, beautiful long neck, and such bottomless brown eyes … Later, when I worked for real with Doreen Leith, Eliza Daniels, Audrey Hepburn, their dark hair and eyes reminded me of Louise.”
Avedon tried himself as an editor and even studied literature in the university, but he couldn’t dodge the destiny of the cameraman. Later, Richard embodied his love of literature in portraits of famous writers and poets of that time (with pictures of Truman Capote, Joseph Brodsky, Isak Dinesen, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, and many others).
Avedon joined the US fleet as an assistant photographer, making a “photo on documents” for recruits. He continued the professional photographer’s shooting ads for his father’s store, and, after all, dared to send his portfolio to Alexey Brodovich’s school. This famous artist and designer, a well-known art director of Harper’s Bazaar magazine, recognized the vast potential in photos made by young Richard Avedon. While all fashion editors rejected Avedon’s “beach” series (in which he portrayed his haute couture models barefoot, disheveled, falling into the sand at the very ankles of their beautiful long legs), it was Brodovic who published these pictures in Harper’s Bazaar.
A glossy start
Avedon’s career skyrocketed after publication in Harper’s Bazaar. While attending Brodovich’s workshops, Avedon met with Irving Penn. Critics often note the characteristic features of their style: both photographers practiced the expressive minimalism of studio fashion shootings. However, while Penn was embarking on bold and strange experiments (for example, filming for a fashion magazine of Aboriginal islanders in military armor), Avedon refrained from anything that could interfere with the idea of purity and simplicity characteristic of his work.
Avedon street photographs of those years were dominated by aerial models in fluttering outfits from famous couturiers, and young ladies in unusual poses, with eyebrow strings, pearl strands became symbols of the new look created by Christian Dior. These were the 40s: the heyday of the glossy publications Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, the beginning of fashion photography as we know it, new forms, a unique style.
Avedon tried to merge fashion and real-life, taking his models from the studio to the streets, to cafes, casinos, museums, and theaters. The everyday context only emphasized the luxury and dazzling brilliance of the photograph. Avedon focused on people themselves, paying less attention to fashion. Suzy Parker, flying on a roller skate on Paris Concorde Square, will say about Avedon: “He was the most wonderful person in this industry because he was the first to understand: models are not just cloth hangers.”
Indeed, his models do not look like beautifully dressed up dolls. They are real women, beautiful, elegant, unique.
The story of Dovima with Elephants
The 50s did not change Avedon’s techniques. He mastered the art of unexpected environments in his fashion photos. And the most recognizable photoshoot of that decade will capture Dovima in a dress from a young designer Yves Saint Laurent, surrounded by African elephants.
In 1955, Richard Avedon was assigned to capture some remarkable fall collections in Paris. Carmel Snow, the Editor-in-Chief of Harper’s Bazaar, wrote the cover story and asked Richard to take 15 photographs to illustrate. The most famous picture from this series is Dovima with Elephants, which received a full spread of the magazine. Avedon selected Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba (nicknamed Dovima for the first two letters of her three given names), for this photoshoot. He used to say that Dovima is “the most amazing and unusual beauty of her time.” Dovima, in turn, recalled that Avedon asked her to do unusual things, but she always knew that his “ideas would always fly.”
The ‘Dovima with Elephants’ photo was among others TOP 100 most influential pictures in human history.
Richard Avedon finally gained a reputation as a recognized master: in 1958, the magazine Popular Photography included him in the list of 10 Great Photographers of the World. Alexey Brodovich came back to Avedon’s life when he made the graphic design of his very first “Observations” album, published in 1959.
Brodovich and Avedon stayed in touch for many years after this collaboration. Magazine, exhibitions, and other joint projects forged strong and somewhat emotional teacher-student bonds. Avedon bitterly remarked upon the death of his teacher: “He died without ever praising me.”