What’s Going On December 20th?

With only four days separating today from the day we’ve all been waiting for, the excitement (or stress, whichever way you look at it) is definitely mounting; so, today I thought I would give myself a little break from all things festive, and write instead about another of my favourite fashion photographers – Richard Avedon.

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Richard Avedon is indisputably one of the most influential photographers to have lived and worked during the last century. Indeed, in their obituary for the late photographer in 2004, the New York Times called him “the eye of fashion,”  saying that his “fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century.” A big statement to live up too, but one which Avedon’s vast collection of work certainly supports.

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Born in New York in 1923, Avedon demonstrated an early interest in photography, both as a way to explore and understand the world around him, and to escape from it; his home life was tough, with a strictly critical father and a younger sister, his first muse, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia. His mixed experience of growing up was one which would inform his later work with its characteristic understanding of the interplay between tragedy and beauty within every individual.

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From 1944 to 1950, Avedon was a student of Alexey Brodovitch, the famed Russian photographer, at his Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research.

During this time, Avedon also began work as a photographer in a department store, although he was not there long; his teacher, Brodovitch, was the art director at Harper’s Bazaar, and he and photographer Lillian Bassman pushed Avedon’s own career at the magazine. Within two years, Avedon had set up his own studio, shooting for publications including Vogue and Life whilst remaining at Harper’s Bazaar as chief photographer.

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Avedon’s approach to his work at the time was revolutionary, and his unique style and techniques were to change the world of fashion photography forever. He rejected a tradition that dictated the models be stationary and indifferent before the camera, instead infusing them with a new energy, whether they be dancing with elephants or leaping from pavements. He was unafraid of spontaneity, and often conducted his shoots outside in a radical leap from convention.

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By the mid-50s, Avedon’s iconic work and his enthusiastic personality had transformed him into something of an icon himself; so much so, in fact, that they based a film on him. Funny Face, a musical released in 1957, told the story of “Dick Avery,” a photographer who’s fictional career is based on Avedon’s early years in the fashion industry. Fred Astaire crosses Paris in tuneful leaps and bounds, capturing his muse with that excited, spontaneous attitude for which Avedon was famous. Avedon himself supplied many of the prints which are featured in the movie, including that iconic, overexposed image of Audrey Hepburn’s face.

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Always one of my own favourites, Hepburn was one of Avedon’s muses throughout the 1950s and 1960s. He said of her “I am, and forever will be, devastated by the gift of Audrey Hepburn before my camera. I cannot lift her to greater heights. She is already there. I can only record. I cannot interpret her. There is no going further than who she is. She has achieved in herself her ultimate portrait.”

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Avedon would, ultimately, come to hate natural lighting, and prefer to shoot in a studio with the aid of strobe lights; particularly when it came to the personal portraits for which he would later become famous. These photographs, which had just as much influence on the industry as his earlier fashion pieces, are easily recognisable due to their radical, individual style, characterised by the stark image of the subject against a shadowless white background. These portraits were mostly of celebrities, but perhaps the most poignant of the photographs are those that depict Avedon’s dying father.

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Avedon preferred the studio because he he felt isolated his sitter from the outside world, creating a self-reflective experience which allowed the person before the lens to become a symbol of themselves. He was not interested in flattering his sitter, but instead in capturing their essence with as much honesty as possible.

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“A portrait is not a likeness.” Said Avedon. “The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion …. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

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Indeed, whilst Avedon is known for his advertising campaigns and editorials within the fashion world, he actually considered himself to be a portrait photographer, for whom fashion was something like a hobby. “There’s always been a separation between fashion and what I call my “deeper” work. Fashion is where I make my living. I’m not knocking it. It’s a pleasure to make a living that way. It’s pleasure, and then there’s the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits. It’s not important what I consider myself to be, but I consider myself to be a portrait photographer.”

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As he grew older, it was portraiture on which he began to concentrate his efforts, branching out beyond the studio to photograph society’s minorities and outcasts, supporting many of their causes financially, as well as through his art. During the 1960s, he was a huge supporter of the Civil Rights Movement, and trained young black photographers to document marches and sit-ins in the South.

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During the 1980s, he worked on a commission capturing the working class of the American West. This was a huge change of direction within Avedon’s career; he was no longer capturing the accomplished celebrity in a clean white studio, but exploring the lives of the poor and disenfranchised through his lens. It was an ambitious project, lasting for almost five years as Avedon and his crew travelled through rodeos, prisons, slaughterhouses and coal mines, taking over 700 photographs. Avedon himself admitted that this was something he could not have undertaken in his younger years; it was, he said, his age and deteriorating health which helped him to identify the story within each of his subject, and to connect with them on the level of that story. Years later, Avedon would revisit his subjects to see what happened to them after the shutter closed.

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This man’s name is Billy Mudd. He was a trucker in 1981, and Avedon took this photo of him in Alto, Texas. His job meant that he was often away from his family for long distances of time, and he was swallowed by a bout of depression and loneliness. The portrait is frank; his pose seems relaxed, his weight balanced on one hip and his right hand loosely pointing to the floor in a sort of bizarre echo of Michaelangelo’s David. However, Avedon does not give Mudd any of David’s angelic perfection; the human form is not classically idealised, and the scuffed jeans bring that all-American feel to the image. Mudd does not gaze off into the distant, instead looking directly at us from beneath a heavy, lined brow, his face painted with the harshness of his life on the road. Apparently, when Mudd saw Avedon’s interpretation of himself, it caused something to click within him, and he realised he needed a change. He quit his job, and returned to his family. Here is a picture of Billy today.

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Avedon, an Eastern photographer who had spent his life photographing celebrities and models, was criticised by some for exploiting the working class Westerners whom he captured in this series, and he was accused of looking down on them in his work. I cannot bring myself to agree with this; I feel that Avedon connected with these people in the moment the shutter clicked, just as he did with all his subjects, whatever their background, and he treated them with as much honesty and respect as he did with his richer clients.

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Even in the 1990s, Avedon refused to slow down; in 1992, he became the first staff photographer for The New Yorker. His portraits continued to spark public talk, especially that of Christopher Reeve in his wheelchair, and a nude of Charlize Theron.

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Avedon literally took his art to the death; he died in 2004 after suffering a brain haemorrhage whilst shooting a series entitled Democracy, which focused around the US presidential election of that same year. He was 81 years old.

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Richard Avendon’s influence in all areas of photography cannot be underestimated. For him, the world was a muse, and photography was his way of living with and understanding that muse. As he himself said “if a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up. I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible.”

Happy December 20th!

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