Fashion has always been regarded as an ephemeral thing, an ever-changing, insubstantial parade of trends and trivia, here one season and gone the next. When Richard Avedon became a professional fashion photographer in the post-war 1940s, fashion models were slightly suspect creatures, thought of in the same category as artists’ models, posing professionally but possibly marketing themselves in other less savory ways. Like store-window mannequins, fashion models were expressionless, nameless, remote. The ideals of female beauty, influenced by the glamour of 1940s’ film stars and curvy World War II pinup girls like Betty Grable and Lana Turner, however, were far removed from the icy perfection of the fashion model.
Richard Avedon, in a 60-year career of photographing everything from the Paris haute couture to working class Americans to portraits of icons like Truman Capote, Jackie Kennedy, and Henry Kissinger, changed fashion images and virtually revolutionized 20th-century American ideas of style, celebrity, and beauty. “The cam-era’s power over fashion was supreme” by the dawn of the 21st century because of Avedon’s work, style historian Anne Hollander writes in The Woman in the Mirror. He was pushing the boundaries of the conventional into uncharted territory with his innovative, sometimes surreal treatment of fashion imagery.
But Richard Avedon was more than a commercial photographer. His gritty, austere photographs of farmers, cowboys, and drifters in the American West and workers in the Civil Rights Movement were groundbreaking in their full frontal realism. His “Portraits” of “people of accomplishment” like Allen Ginsberg, Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Ezra Pound, and Dwight Eisenhower revealed the character, not just the physiognomy of the person, and won prizes on exhibition in major art museums. Capturing his subjects off guard in revealing emotional moments and photographing them against stark white backgrounds, Avedon earned status in the art world and brought photography with him.
Such insight into visual culture informed his fashion photography for Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as well. First of all, Avedon transformed the haughty imagery of impossibly perfect, formidably clothed models by photographing them in motion, jumping puddles in Paris, smoking at sidewalk cafés, talking to street people, smiling and dancing at local bistros. From the beginning, he was working with legendary models like Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker, Dovima, and Sunny Harnett, but posing them in iconoclastic ways, with elephants or Folies Bergere showgirls, on roller skates or surrounded by paparazzi. Their personalities showed, and a new kind of beauty was born.
Certainly the standards of female beauty have always been a contested space. At the beginning of the 20th century, women were still in corsets with skirts to their ankles, looking buxom and well fed. The Gibson Girl, a character drawn by artist Charles Gibson, personified the admired feminine look, with an S-curve bosomy body tightly cinched at the waist and hair in a tendril-strewn chignon. By the 1920s, a more androgynous look had taken hold, with the corset gone, skirts shorter, and women even binding their breasts to achieve a flat look. Hollywood and its glamorous stars like Clara Bow and Mae West had a tremendous influence and made using makeup and wearing clothing with sexual innuendos more acceptable. Later, film stars like Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo exerted a similar influence on how women were supposed to look and dress, both as femme fatale and as mysterious, remote beauties. During World War II, a more androgynous look briefly returned, this time with shoulder pads, as women went to work for the war effort and wore work clothes and uniforms. Fabric production was restricted but, no problem, movie star Betty Grable could still pose in a skimpy bathing suit. The hot blonde became the American ideal (and still is to some extent).
Avedon came on the scene in the postwar 1940s just as Christian Dior’s “New Look” of fabric-rich, hourglass-shaped women’s suits launched, and he helped launch it with his own new look in fashion photographs, showing Dior’s full skirts swirling in the Place de la Concorde of liberated Paris as admiring young males looked on. He posed fabulously dressed models in bars playing pinball machines and gambling at casinos, dismantling the tradition of photographing fashion as something apart from real life. Harper’s Bazaar gave Avedon his start as staff photographer, and his unorthodox images were to grace its pages for 20 years, encompassing the upheaval in style and female beauty brought on by the 1960s and the sexual revolution.
By this time, the Barbie doll with her totally unrealistic proportions was already a sensation among little girls, and Hugh Hefner had launched his own version of female beauty in Playboy. Cosmetics companies like Estee Lauder and Max Factor produced advertising campaigns to show women how to enhance their looks with powder and paint, long thought only a mark of the déclassé, and encouraged a kind of feminine narcissism about appearance that helped sell lipstick and other cosmetics. Even though real movie stars like Marilyn Monroe were still wearing a size 14, a dress size that in today’s fitness-conscious fashion world is considered “plus size,” standards of female beauty were beginning to undergo dramatic change as the upheaval of the late 1960s’ “youth quake” challenged establishment values and cultural norms.
Avedon liked women, and he had always had an eye for beauty, its mystery, and its darker, shadow side. At the New Yorker in the 1990s, his stark black-and-white portraits of public figures, celebrities, and iconic personalities broke new ground. In the faces of fashion models as well as of the downtrodden he often photographed, Avedon captured the authenticity of a complex, human beauty. His portraits of accomplished people, done in the 1960s and 1970s, have been exhibited in the Smithsonian Institution, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Museum of Modern Art as well as in Europe and around the world. They are not about fashion but about humanity. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor are caught off guard in Avedon’s portrait of them; he had just told them of an accident to a dog and their faces fell.
Richard Avedon was a native New Yorker, born in Manhattan in 1923 to Jacob and Anna Avedon. His father, second generation in a Russian-Jewish immigrant family, owned a prosperous Fifth Avenue clothing store, and Richard grew up on the Upper East Side. By the time he was 12, he owned a Kodak Box Brownie camera and was obsessed with photographing Sergey Rachmaninoff who had an apartment in the Riverside Drive building where his grandparents lived. He staked out the lobby and got the picture, the first of many celebrity photographs to come.
Avedon had a literary bent too; at 18, he was chosen Poet Laureate of New York City high schools and was coeditor of the DeWitt Clinton High School literary magazine with future author James Baldwin. After he graduated from DeWitt Clinton, Avedon spent a year as a philosophy major at Columbia University, then left school during the war to enlist in the Merchant Marine in 1943 where he was assigned to the photo section and learned photography by taking the ID mug shots of thousands of sailors.
When he got out of the service in 1944, Avedon was intent on a photography career and hounded the influential Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar, into letting him enroll in Brodovitch’s Design Lab at the New School for Social Research. Brodovitch became Avedon’s mentor and helped to get his photographs published in Junior Bazaar. While Avedon initially supported himself doing photography for Bonwit Teller, a Fifth Avenue department store, by 1946 he was on the payroll at Harper’s Bazaar working with editor Carmel Snow and, thanks to Brodovitch, snagging some of the magazine’s best assignments including photographing the Paris collections. Avedon opened his own studio near the Bazaar offices on Madison Avenue and began to explore on his own time what would be his signature métier, the portrait. It helped that he loved the theater and the art world and met and mingled with many of the celebrities he photographed. By 1957, his prowess as a fashion photographer had inspired a movie, Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn, based on Avedon’s career. Avedon served as visual consultant for the film. In the following year, he was named one of “The World’s Ten Greatest Photographers” by Popular Photography magazine, in such distinguished company as Ansel Adams, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Irving Penn, and Yousuf Karsh.
Avedon was a perfectionist, a precise and sometimes controlling Svengali, yet able to elicit spontaneous and telling responses from his models and portrait subjects. Avedon came to prefer a minimalist background of pure white, no props, for his portraits and for many of his fashion shots. He used a small, square Rolleiflex camera, which he held at waist level, looking down into the viewfinder, and moving, even dancing, rapidly around his subject. Avedon switched to a Deardorff 8 × 10 camera on a tripod in 1969, a large format, wooden field camera that was more demanding and restrictive but produced high-quality images and allowed him to move away from the camera and closer to the model or personage, using a remote release to snap the picture.
What distinguished his work was this sense of intimacy with the subject, even when the idea was to isolate and frame the face or figure in solitary splendor. One of his models, China Machado, who was also an editor at Bazaar, called him “the charmer of all time.” “If he wanted to charm you,” she said, “you didn’t have a chance.” People in his portraits seemed to feel relaxed enough to let their guard down. Marilyn Monroe, wearing an ill-fitting dress and looking away, is caught, for once, not posing for the camera in Avedon’s portrait of her. He admired the Hungarian photographer, Martin Munkacsi, who was also at Bazaar, and learned from what has been called Munkacsi’s “snapshot aesthetic” of capturing movement and the candid moment in fashion images.
This suited Avedon’s own aesthetic. Thin, wiry, and intense, “he was always jumping around,” friend and photographer Lillian Bassman said. When the 1960s burst on the fashion scene with miniskirts and rich hippie looks, Avedon was in his element, photographing British model Twiggy, icon of the look, as she cavorted in short Mary Quant shifts and white go-go boots. Baby boomers, 73 million teenagers and young adults strong, were staging a youth rebellion against establishment mores and transforming fashion in the process, wearing frayed bell-bottom pants and jeans, tie-dyed shirts, bare feet, and plenty of attitude.
Americans became obsessed with youth and trying to look young, spurred on by advertisers trying to reach the prized audience of 18- to 24-year-olds, and the obsession continues today. The “natural look” for women, involving less makeup and more hair, longer or teased into a bouffant, took hold. Hats were left by the wayside, except for style icon Jackie Kennedy’s pillbox, as both women and men sought a more casual and relaxed look. Hair, including the Afro, became a vehicle of self-expression. Sexual emancipation, helped by the introduction of the birth control pill, was part of the mix. Feminism gained ground and the Civil Rights movement was well underway. While this youth quest resulted in some outlandish outfits and looks, especially when worn by older Americans, “youthiness” continues to be a driving force in fashion and beauty standards today.
Avedon, by 1966 working at Vogue with his friend, editor Diana Vreeland, and another admired figure, art director Alexander Liberman, caught the moment for many Vogue covers, with Swinging London models Jean Shrimpton, Twiggy, and American Penelope Tree capturing the spotlight in all their ”flower-power” glory. Fashion magazine covers at that point were focused almost exclusively on the face and hair, with models looking directly at the viewer from newsstand displays. Ave-don, ever solicitous of his models and making sure they had their favorite snacks, drinks, and music as they posed, did some of his most attention-getting work in the 1960s and 1970s, now using his preferred white backgrounds and filling fashion pages with leaping models, their hair blown back as if in a wind tunnel, and wearing everything from Courreges’s space-age suits to Yves St. Laurent’s take on Mondrian abstraction. One of his favorite models was Lauren Hutton whose gap-toothed natural beauty seemed to convey an all-American look.
But Avedon was also out photographing the progress of the Civil Rights movement in the South, on his own time, images that, along with photographs of Vietnam antiwar protesters and photos from a 1971 visit to Saigon, would be included in later museum exhibitions. He also took a series of photographs in a mental institution and of the Berlin Wall. Two books of his photographs had already been published, Observations, with a text written by Truman Capote (Simon & Schuster, 1959), and Nothing Personal, with text by James Baldwin (Atheneum, 1964). These were among the 11 books Avedon eventually published, including one with photographer Diane Arbus’s daughter, Doon Arbus, Avedon: The Sixties (Random House, 1999) that included the whole panoply of 1960s’ figures, from Black Panthers and Weathermen to Andy Warhol Factory Superstars and rock musicians. Avedon had already done portraits of the Beatles. The Smithsonian Institute mounted an exhibition of his photographs in 1962, the first of many museums to do so. The Metropolitan Museum, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and dozens of other American museums also staged exhibitions of Avedon’s photographs, including “In the American West,” a collection of photographs of work-worn farmers, cowboys, miners, and out-of-work drifters, which was exhibited abroad in London and Milan as well as in the United States.
During the 1970s and 1980s, Avedon continued at Vogue while fashion morphed yet again as did women, now entering the workplace and changing ideas of gender roles. Women started to wear pants, once unheard of, and an antifashion attitude took hold with more conservative “Dress for Success” looks mixed in with disco and punk styles. The Annie Hall look, a collage of layering with full skirts, vests, and ties was inspired by what Diane Keaton wore in a 1977 Woody Allen movie. Then in the 1980s, conspicuous consumption became de rigueur in a period of prosperity, and fashion houses themselves prospered. In the late 1980s and into the 1990s, a fitness craze took hold and women’s shape changed, becoming more lean and muscular. Fashion responded with a minimalist look in the 1990s and postmodern theories like deconstruction began to affect what women wore.
“Categories of beauty” were dissolving, as fashion critic Cathy Horyn of the New York Times said, and Avedon himself seemed to be moving away from it, doing more and more work on his own outside of fashion. His work for a Rolling Stone 1976 bicentennial issue of “The Family,” picturing 73 powerful men and women, won a National Magazine Award for Visual Excellence. He was also turning to storytelling, in 1962 doing a series of photographs of Suzy Parker and Mike Nichols acting out a short scenario in Paris and later, doing an inventive advertising campaign for Christian Dior in 1982 that portrayed a fictional family in various situations and expensive clothes over a series of ads. He later collaborated with Diane Arbus’s daughter, Doon Arbus, on a photo-fable featuring model Nadja Auermann wearing designer clothes in various scenarios with a skeleton, titled “In Memory of the Late Mr. and Mrs. Comfort.” The 25-page picture story was published in the New Yorker in 1995.
Four years later, New Yorker editor Tina Brown hired Avedon as staff photographer, a daring move as the magazine had never used any but tiny photographs in the past. Yet such was the power of photography—and the skill of Avedon—that the hyperaware Brown could not resist or ignore the visual culture the camera was creating. It had been a long struggle for photography even to be considered as art. First created by Louis DaGuerre in partnership with Joseph Niepce in Paris in the 1830s, the photograph was long regarded as a mere record, not worthy of the status of art. While the Museum of Modern Art began its photography collection in 1940, the question of photography as art was debated well into the mid-20th century. But the artistic work of such photographers as Alfred Stieglitz, Ansel Adams, and Edward Steichen could not be overlooked. Avedon’s predecessors and competitors such as Irving Penn, Diane Arbus, Guy Bourdin, Walker Evans, Robert Mapplethorpe, Annie Liebowitz, and too many others to name were putting the art of photography into museums by the end of the century.
Richard Avedon died of a cerebral hemorrhage on October 1, 2004, while on assignment for the New Yorker in Texas. His survivors included a son, John, born to Avedon and his second wife, Evelyn Franklin, and four grandchildren. His first wife was Dorcas Nowell, a model known as Doe Avedon.
Avedon won many awards, among them Photographer of the Year by the American Society of Magazine Photographers in 1985, Lifetime Achievement Awards from the Council of Fashion Designers of America, Columbia University, and Americans for the Arts, and honorary doctorates from the Royal College of Art in London and Kenyon College. His legacy is in his portraits, their authenticity almost a rebuke to his work in the fantasy world of fashion.
Avedon, Richard. An Autobiography. New York: Random House, 1993.
Avedon, Richard and Doon Arbus. Avedon the Sixties. New York: Random House, 1999.
Avedon, Richard. Evidence 1944–1994. Ed. Mary Shanahan. New York: Jonathann Cape, 1994.
Avedon, Richard. In the American West 1979–1984. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985.
Avedon, Richard. Richard Avedon Portraits. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2002.
Avedon, Richard. Woman in the Mirror. Introduction by Anne Hollander. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005.