Style Profile: Richard Avedon

Today, I want to present to you a contender for one of the most important people in fashion history. A model? No. A designer? No. A photographer.

Yes, a photographer. Think about it, most of what we see from the world of fashion is communicated in photographs. Lookbooks, magazines, advertisements, catwalks, the red carpet, and clothing images on webpages – are all photographed. In truth, the making or breaking of a brand is often the image it carries. Okay, so a photographer, you understand that, but which one?

Richard Avedon (1923 –2004)

Avedon is my favourite photographer. More importantly, his influence on fashion photography (and photography in general) is pretty unrivalled. He’s worked for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, Calvin Klein and Versace; he pioneered photography as an art form, and Fred Astaire’s character in Funny Man is based on him. Oh yeah, and he basically photographed every famous person you’ve ever heard of!

Avedon was born in 1923, New York City. Photography had been at the forefront of his life from a young age; he enjoyed taking photographs of the clothing in his father’s store as a child.  Avedon once reflected on a notably important moment in his life, which occurred whilst walking down Fifth Avenue with his father: “In front of the Plaza Hotel, I saw a bald man with a camera posing a very beautiful woman against a tree. He lifted his head, adjusted her dress a little bit and took some photographs. Later, I saw the picture in Harper’s Bazaar.”

“My job was to do identity photographs. I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer”

After becoming co-editor of his high school magazine, along with writer James Baldwin, Avedon studied philosophy and poetry at Columbia University, but dropped out after his first year (I like this, it shows how sometimes, going against the grain can help – but, let’s remain realistic, sometimes is the operative word here). He then served as a ‘Photographer’s Mate, Second Class’ in the Merchant Marines during World War II. He described his role as “to do identity photographs. 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 to work as a professional photographer, studying under art director Alexey Brodovitch, the acclaimed art director of Harper’s Bazaar. Avedon and Brodovitch formed a close bond, and within a year Avedon was hired as a staff photographer for the magazine.

With Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon was denied the use of a studio and therefore took to doing fashion-shoots outdoors. This is why Avedon is my biggest inspiration within fashion photography. He showed absolute innovation by taking his subjects out of the studio and into real environments including the beach, nightclubs, in the street, and the circus (you all know the Dior shoot with the elephants right? That was his – ‘Dovima with Elephants’).

This transformed fashion photography forever – these days we actually see people trying to replicate the street in a studio environment, or using green screens and all sort of nonsense. The reason consumers bought into and fell in love with the campaigns Avedon directed in fashion and beyond is because of their brutal honesty. He captures his subjects in real environments and is known for showing real emotion and real movement in his shots (as well as some of the finest models and outfits we’ve ever had, of course).

I believe this is because all his shots are organic: if people look like they were running, they were running; if there’s an elephant in the background, there actually was an elephant in the background. Whilst the use of digital and modern techniques are useful, their synthetic result is that they cannot capture or communicate a sense of real life in their photography like Avedon did, and the imagination of other photographers at his time simply could not contest. Who says limitations are always limiting?

Needless to say, he quickly became lead photographer for Harper’s Bazaar, creating some of the most famous fashion photographs in history during his twenty years there. After guest-editing the April 1965 issue, Avedon quit due to criticism over his collaboration with ‘models of colour’, which, at the time, was deemed distasteful by certain people.

He then joined Vogue, where he worked for more than twenty years. In 1992, Avedon became the first staff photographer at The New Yorker, and he had also worked for Égoïste. Throughout this, Avedon did commercial work and is credited with obliterating the line between “art” and “commercial” photography. His commercial clients included Calvin Klein and Versace. He was also monumental within the world of portraiture photography. His black and white images of figures including The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Dr Martin Luther King and Malcom X (to name a few) were praised with showing the basic humanity of celebrated people.

Avedon was also prominent in photography’s emergence as a ‘genuine’ art form during the 1960s and beyond. In 1959 he published a book of photographs, Observations, featuring commentary by Truman Capote, and Nothing Personal (1964), with an accompanying essay by James Baldwin. In 1977, “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977”, was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art before beginning an international tour of many world-famous museums.

Richard Avedon passed away on October 1, 2004, while on assignment for The New Yorker in San Antonio, Texas. He was 81 years old. Prior to his death, he founded The Richard Avedon Foundation; and he also left the world thousands of iconic and innovative images depicting beauty, tragedy and, of course, style.

Rhys Thomas

Image Credit: Ashley Baxter via Unsplash

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