Richard Avedon was an American photographer best known for his work in the fashion world and for his minimalist, large-scale character-revealing portraits. He was born in New York City, discovering love for photography at an early age. From the DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where he co-edited the school’s literary magazine, to working with some of the most renowned fashion magazines, Avedon’s career was constantly booming.
(Nastassja Kinski, June 14, 1981. Los Angeles. Photo Credit: Richard Avedon Foundation)
Serving as Photographer’s Mate Second Class in the US Merchant Marine during World War II, he was in charge for identity photographs. As he described it, ‘I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer’. After two years of service, he left the Merchant Marine to work as a professional photographer, initially creating fashion images.
At the age of 21, Avedon began working as a freelance photographer, primarily for Harper’s Bazaar (but for other magazines as well, such as Vogue and The New Yorker) demanding that his models convey emotion and movement, a departure from the norm of motionless fashion photography. Interestingly, he initially denied the use of a studio by the magazines, due to his strong interest in photographing models and fashions on the streets, in nightclubs, on the beach and at other uncommon locations. Needless to say, his work was so strikingly unique that he quickly became the lead photographer for Harper’s Bazaar.
(Twiggy, January 6, 1968. Paris. Photo Credit: Richard Avedon Foundation)
Already established as one of the most talented young fashion photographers in the business, in 1955 Avedon made fashion and photography history when he staged a photo shoot at a circus. The iconic photograph of that shoot, ‘Dovima with Elephants’, features the most famous model of the time in a black Dior evening gown with a long white silk sash. She is posed between two elephants, her back serenely arched as she holds on to the trunk of one elephant while reaching out fondly toward the other. The image remains one of the most strikingly original and iconic fashion photographs of all time. “He asked me to do extraordinary things,” Dovima said of Avedon. “But I always knew I was going to be part of a great picture.”
(Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, August 1955, Paris. Photo Credit: Richard Avedon Foundation)
He was fascinated by photography’s capacity for suggesting the personality and evoking the life of his subjects. He registered poses, attitudes, hairstyles, clothing and accessories as vital, revelatory elements of an image. He had complete confidence in the two-dimensional nature of photography, the rules of which he bent to his stylistic and narrative purposes. As he wryly said, “My photographs don’t go below the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues.”
(Jean Shrimpton, evening dress by Galitzine, August 1965, Paris. Photo Credit: Richard Avedon Foundation)
(Jean Shrimpton, evening dress by Cardin, January 1970, Paris. Photo Credit: Richard Avedon Foundation)
After guest-editing the April 1965 issue of Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon quit the magazine after facing a storm of criticism over his collaboration with models of color. He joined Vogue, where he worked for more than twenty years. In 1992, Avedon became the first staff photographer at The New Yorker, where his portraiture helped redefine the aesthetic of the magazine. During this period, his fashion photography appeared almost exclusively in the French magazine Égoïste.
Richard Avedon passed away on October 1, 2004, while on assignment for The New Yorker in San Antonio, Texas. He was 81 years old. He established The Richard Avedon Foundation during his lifetime.
Cover Photo Credit: Shoe by Perugia, Place du Trocadéro, August 1948, Paris. Richard Avedon Foundation