Good luck keeping your $#!% together when you walk into a room and see Jackie O., Malcolm X, Elizabeth Taylor, Tina Turner, Truman Capote, Janis Joplin, Katharine Hepburn, and Andy Warhol all in the same place. Perhaps one of the most striking photography exhibitions in modern history, the SF MoMA’s Richard Avedon retrospective in 2009 was the first comprehensive retrospective of the American photographer since his death in 2004. Titled “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004,” the exhibit focused purely on Avedon’s black and white photographs spanning his fifty+ year career, from pieces that graced the pages of Vogue to a portrait series of rural, Midwestern farm hands, carneys and beekeepers.
Born to a Russian Jewish family in New York City in 1923, Avedon began his career in his 20s in commercial and fashion photography, producing shots for Harper’s Bazaar, and soon after for Vogue and Life Magazine.
His work in fashion photography took him to the design and fashion capitals of the world, and established him as a sought after artist. His early photography career and his relationship with his ex-wife Doe even became the basis for the classic film Funny Face. The 1957 film featured Fred Astaire as “Dick Avery” (ha!) and Audrey Hepburn (later to become Avedon’s muse), and utilized Richard Avedon as a visual consultant.
One of my favorite shots from the film, and the trailer below:
Though he began his career in fashion photography, as he became a more established artist his interests meandered to the movers and shakers of the American political and social scene. Many of Avedon’s iconic photos depict some of the most famous models, actresses and actors, politicians, writers and artists in modern history. In most cases, however, Avedon tried to capture a version of each person that is stripped of the Hollywood or political branding and bravado, instead aiming to represent basic human emotions and relatable expressions.
Keep in mind that the vast majority of the work reproduced below was originally produced on a larger-than-life scale, some reaching 8 by 10 feet or larger.
Even if you had no idea who these people were or what they did for a living, each portrait could give you a pretty good idea based on how Avedon chose to represent them. The combination of the simple background with the close-up details and epic proportions of each photograph force your eyes to focus sharply on each facial expression and body movement; You notice the wrinkles around the lips of the trumpeter, the musician’s easy posture, a wife’s admirative stare, the grin and outstretched hand of a budding politician.
“He was trying to cut to the heart of the matter…to understand what people’s lives were really like under force of pressure. His work, in a way, strips away the masks that we all wear, and in doing so reveals a kind of deeper humanity. I think that when photographers today, or artists or writers or the public at large, look at his photographs, that this is what they’ll really be able to take away from the work: this penetrating of the masks that we all wear in order to hide ourselves.” -Paul Roth, curator of Photography at Corcoran Gallery in Washington D.C.
Famous for saying, “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”, Avedon understood that photography is an art of collaboration between a photographer and his subject, with push and pull, give and take from each. He enjoyed using stories to evoke specific reactions from his subjects and to play with their emotions, allowing him to capture the expressions he wanted to show.
Take, for example, his photo shoot with the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Here is a photo of the duo taken in the Bahamas by the The Vancouver Sun in 1940 (not by Avedon):
Infamous for abdicating the throne to marry the woman he loved, Edward VIII was given the title Duke of Windsor, and his new wife Wallis Simpson became the Duchess of Windsor upon their marriage in the 1930s. Wallis was an American socialite with two living ex-husbands (the second divorce was not finalized when she met Edward VIII)–hardly a suitable companion for a British monarch. In addition to the initial political uproar that their romance caused in Britain, during the Second World War the Duke and Duchess of Windsor were also suspected by many to be Nazi sympathizers.
Avedon knew that these political and socialite subjects were no strangers to being photographed, and that they were likely expecting a classic “stock photo shoot.” As they sat down in front of the camera, and with the knowledge that they were avid Pug lovers, Avedon told them that on his way to meet them that day, his taxi had run over and killed a dog.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Avedon’s focus shifted from celebrity portraits to documenting “working class” Americans. He created a series, eventually published into an exhibition catalogue, called “In the American West: 1979-1984.”
Avedon himself said, during his transition from celebrity and fashion photographer to “staff photographer” (ha!) at U.S.A. Today:
“I’ve photographed just about everyone in the world…but what I hope to do is photograph people of accomplishment, not celebrity, and help define the difference once again.”
In lieu of me posting a million (or two) additional mesmerizing Avedon portraits, check out The Richard Avedon Foundation’s website, which keeps his artwork and legacy alive in truly stunning photo displays, as well as in arts institutions worldwide.