There has never been another photographer like Richard Avedon (1923-2004), who revolutionized fashion imagery, elevated portraiture to the level of high art, and was perhaps the most successful advertising photographer of all time. To be near him was to experience sheer genius.
Back in 1995 the Public Broadcasting System presented a 90-minute documentary on his life as part of their "American Masters" series. Although I had seen it at the time — and was impressed — it somehow got forgotten as I busied myself on a travel writing career. Then in February of this year I was interviewed for Vanity Fair Magazine about my former connections with Avedon, and the desire to once again view this marvelous show became overwhelming. Netflix didn't have it, so I ordered the DVD from Amazon.
Now, this disc has been out of print for a while, so you must really want it and be willing to pay a rather hefty price, or buy it used. It is, after all, a collector's item, but for anyone serious about photography it's worth every penny.
The show opens with scenes of his hanging an exhibition in a major art museum, during which he explains his motivations along with his demons. Avedon (photo, left) always strove to be a creator, not an observer, always completely in control of each session. In this way he differs from other famous photographers who report life or capture images. Avedon created images from his fertile imagination, then set about getting them on film much as a movie director creates a motion picture.
The video then jumps to his early work in fashion, focusing on his first Paris couture collection in 1946. World War II was over, and Paris was alive once again with its reinvigorated fashion industry. Dick and his first wife, Doe, rode in from the airport in an open-top taxi, standing up and drinking champagne along the way. And what photos he produced for Harper's Bazaar magazine! No one had ever put this much life — this much joie de vivre — into fashion before. Distinguishing his images are the stories they tell, like scenes from a novel or gossip column.
Avedon's work was influenced, first of all, by the Hungarian-born photographer Martin Munkácsi, who had also worked for the magazine in the 1930s. He regarded three people at the magazine as his true mentors: Carmel Snow, the editor; Alexey Brodovitch, the innovative art director; and Diana Vreeland (photo, left), the fashion editor who Dick thought of as his crazy aunt.
In another chapter the video explains his use of motion and storyline to present fashions. In doing this, however, he never forgot the dress. It always looked great. To inspire his models he would sometimes dance along with them (photo, right), using them more as actresses than as clotheshorses.
By the early 1960s he had gone about as far as he could go without endlessly repeating himself. So it is not surprising that his passions then shifted to portraits and reportage. The mid-decade switch to Vogue magazine was really commercial in nature — for them he produced beautifully constructed and sophisticated fashion photos that in turn attracted the most lucrative advertising assignments.
One important aspect of the video is that it does not just focus on his fashion and portrait photography, but explores some of his advertising work as well. Particularly striking is the TV commercial he did for Coco Perfume. In this, as in his other commercial work, it's never about the product, but totally about having the product — what is being sold is a feeling, not an item. Avedon was no purist in any sense of the word. He explains why he put so much effort into his advertising work by stating that "it's fun, and the food is good," and that it supported his other, more serious, work. He also made no apologies for making money and living very, very well, as his Manhattan town house and Montauk country home suggest.
In doing his portraiture, Avedon cast himself as a hunter who could see right through people, latching on to their hidden essence through careful observation of their faces. He would then guide (or manipulate, or trick) them into revealing their true selves. Had he not taken up photography, he might have become a great fortune teller.
In photographing other people he, in a sense, was really looking at himself, trying to find the darkness and light of his own existence. Yet he always remains the one in control — they are his pictures, not the subjects'. This becomes most clear in what he considered to be his best body of work, the long series of portraits of drifters, loners, laborers and losers taken between 1979 and 1983 and presented in museums and as a book under the title "In The American West."
Avedon was surely the first fashion photographer to declare himself to be a serious artist, at the same level as painters and sculptors. And he did it loudly and very publicly. That this was not always well received is an understatement, but it was his self-promotion that got his work into world-class museums, created his fame, and — most important — opened the way for other photographers to also be recognized as true artists.
In the end we visit his country home near Montauk, at the eastern end of New York's Long Island. Here he grew apples and raised chickens when not busy with more photographic projects.
All in all, the video tells us a lot about Richard Avedon, and about photography as an art. For those who didn't know him it is a revelation; for those who did a marvelous remembrance of a true master.
Although the flick covers his entire career as a photographer from 1947 until the time of production in 1995, he continued working right up until the day of his death in 2004. I worked for him from 1952 through 1956, and again from 1959 through 1965, the last 3½ years as studio manager. Some of the highlights of those ten years that involved me and that are featured on the video are:
(click on underlined words for the full story)
- Marilyn Monroe, 1954. This was the first time he photographed her, although the more famous photos were done a few years later. What made it memorable for me, a drooling teenager at the time, was being right there next to her, having her ask me if I wanted her autograph and a message to me on the photo mount, and having a news picture of her with me appear in a cheap fan magazine soon afterwards!
- The Astronauts, 1961. Only the photo of Alan Shepard appears in the video, but we did all three original astronauts that day at NASA Headquarters, Langley Field, Virginia. Just about everything that could go wrong did, including a power failure and having to drive back to New York through a terrible storm that night. But the pictures were great.
- The Paris Collections, 1962. This gets prominent coverage on the video because it was so shocking. Inspired by incessant press coverage of a romance between Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor while making the film Cleopatra, and by the depiction of paparazzi in the film La Dolce Vita, Avedon combined the talents of Mike Nichols and Suzy Parker to treat coverage of the 1962 Fall Collections in Paris as a gag.
- The D.A.R., 1964. One of Avedon's iconic photographs, featured in several of his books, museum exhibitions, and on the video, is this hilarious treatment of the Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, taken in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel, Washington D.C. He had no love for these ladies, and we had just come from photographing the stormtroopers of the American Nazi Party in Virginia. I actually operated the camera, which was mounted on a tripod, on this frame — on his whispered instructions as he busied himself arranging the ladies in postion for a formal group portrait. Dick then took the serious pictures, but this was the one that was used.
- Former President Eisenhower, 1964. Dick and I flew out to Palm Springs, California in early 1964, staying at the Racquet Club for a few days while arrangements were made to photograph the former President at his home on a golf course. He was a very genial host, and could not have been more cooperative. In most of the frames he appears as his friendly self; in the choosen one a bit pensive.
- Santa Monica Beach, 1964. Avedon wandered around the beach alone at dusk with a 35mm Pentax SLR camera, shooting candids of touching scenes. He also grossly underexposed the film in the fading last light. When the films were developed, there were no visible images of the final frames on them, but he insisted that I try to make prints. Using every darkroom trick I knew, I eventually pulled these ghostly images, which actually are more effective than they would have been if properly exposed. I emphasized the grain by using a pin-point lamp head on the enlarger. Opposite the photo in the book Nothing Personal were these words by author James Baldwin: "The sea rises, the light fails, lovers cling to each other, and children cling to us. The moment we cease to hold each other, the moment we break faith with one another, the sea engulfs us and the light goes out."
Some other famous sessions on the video that were from my time with Avedon but on which I was not present are:
- Charlie Chaplin, 1952. Saturday, September 13. Avedon received a call at home from Chaplin, who asked if he could have his picture taken right away. Naturally, Dick was thrilled and hurried off to the Madison Avenue studio for a private sitting with no assistants. The result was a stunning photo of Chaplin giving his farewell gesture to America — hours later he was safely onboard a ship bound for Britain, having escaped the clutches of the Immigration Service after being denounced by the F.B.I. as a communist sympathizer.
- The Windsors, 1957. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, formerly King Edward VIII of England and Wally Simpson of Baltimore, always put on a happy face for the press, and tried to do that again. But Avedon outsmarted them by inventing a story about how on the way to the studio his taxi had just run over a dog and killed it. They reacted with a look of pain and sorrow, captured for all time by Dick's quick thinking.
t's a shame that this fine video has been discontinued by the manufacturer due to limited demand. In the past this was understandable as a fairly large number of copies had to be made and kept in inventory, but this is no longer true. Amazon now has a program through their CreateSpace subsidiary of producing DVDs on demand, one at a time as they are ordered. This is similar to the way my books have been printed for the last few years, as I described in this 2006 posting.
Photography's Golden Age ended long ago but remains very much alive in my memory. From 1952 through 1965 I assisted Avedon through his most creative period, and do I ever have the stories to tell! Now, at the end of 2015, is the time to reveal all while I'm still alive and kicking. Tales of personalities, motivations, intrigues, and even the fine details of how it was all done.
What I need to make this project a reality is a co-conspirator to aid in getting the whole, true, uncensored story published -- either as a book, an e-book, or a documentary.
Anyone interested? Leave a comment and I'll get back to you.