ASSISTING RICHARD AVEDON, 1952-56
Continuing from the last post on this thread (click here to read), from my leaving High School in 1952 until my military service beginning in January 1957, I worked as an assistant to the famous photographer Richard Avedon. I learned a lot during those years: techniques, ideas, and attitudes that served me well later on.
At first, of course, I was in effect an apprentice and did not really earn much, but my meager pay was often supplemented by posing in advertising photos (that's me on the right, being fed fake cherries while laying in fake snow). My parents also subsidized me until my salary caught up with the cost of living in Manhattan.
Another of my enjoyable duties (we won't mention mopping the floor) was to support lovely models as they got "put together" by the fashion stylists. Like the one in the photo on the left. She had a warm back.
Avedon's fame did not come from advertising photography, however. It was his celebrity portraits that made him one of the most celebrated photographers of all time. Now, I wish that I could use some of these here, but they are all copyrighted so I will stay out of trouble and just mention names.
During that time I got to meet film directors John Huston and Alfred Hitchcock, and opera stars Richard Tucker, Jerome Hines, Roberta Peters as well as opera director Rudolph Bing and the fabulous singer Marian Anderson. Also in the music field were the composer/conductor Leornard Bernstein (who commented on my Germanic name), and Louis Armstrong(who let me hold his trumpet).
Avedon, always the gentleman, almost invariably took the trouble of introducing me to his subjects, so that I felt myself to be part of the action.
Marilyn Monroe was exceptionally nice to to this drooling teenager, and autographed a large mounting board with the words "To Earl, Love and Kisses, Marilyn Monroe." To this I affixed a 9"x12" print from the session. I'm still trying to find where I put this* — when it is uncovered I will post it here. A news picture taken during the sitting showed her with me right behind — this was later used in a cheap paperback book that unfortunately has long since disappeared.
NEW INFORMATION (4/5/09): The book has surfaced (used) on Amazon for a mere $225.00 Its original price was 35¢! The title is: Marilyn Monroe as The Girl — The Candid Picture Story of the Making of "The Seven Year Itch". Ballantine Books Mass Market #108, printed in 1955. If anyone wants to buy it for me I'll be eternally grateful.
The man with her in the above picture is director Billy Wilder.
Other stars that I can still recall included Mae West, Katharine Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, and Jimmy Durante. But perhaps the most memorable celeb was the oceanographer and environmentalist Captain Jacques Cousteau, who used me to demonstrate his newly-invented SCUBA gear.
Unlike other photographers of stars, Avedon's portraits were not always flattering, and sometimes downright brutal. He always tried to capture the true soul of his subjects, and strip away the veneer. So why did they subject themselves to his penetrating lens? Masochism perhaps? Or just the notion that bad publicity is better than no publicity? I don't pretend to know. Of course, if he liked them they got to look ravishing, or at least interesting.
Sometime in 1954 the studio moved from 640 Madison Avenue to the corner of Third Avenue and 49th Street, in a huge loft right above Manny Wolf's Restaurant. That's me on its roof. This had enough space for two studios and everything that went with them.
In 1955 I was the only assistant to be sent on a wonderful trip to California that began with a week in San Francisco, then a drive down the coastal road to San Simeon to negotiate a movie deal, and finally a bit of a rest in Beverly Hills. This was so special that I have devoted an separate post to it:CLICK HERE to download.
Photos above: Avedon with 8 x10 camera in Jamaica; Round Hill estate; me in my cottage, my cottage. Photo below: Avedon directing the model.
The only other adventure before my military service was a week in Jamaica, during which time we did exactly one photo, an ad for Helena Rubinstein cosmetics. We stayed at Round Hill, a private community of stars and shakers in the entertainment world, and we each had our own cottages overlooking Montego Bay. The "cottage" that we used for photography belonged to William Paley, the founder and CEO of CBS. He was a friend of the boss. When we finished, Avedon stayed on vacation and I was to go to New York with the film. On the last night, we had dinner with the British Governor of Jamaica (still a colony at that time), who offered to pick me up in the morning for the drive to the airport, as he was also flying. So I flew with His Excellency, first to Cuba (pre-Castro) and then to Miami, from which I got a flight to NYC.