Avedon's Real Talent
Several readers of this blog have asked me: What cameras did Richard Avedon use to create his renowned photographs? A fair question, which I have tried to answer in an earlier post. But a loaded question. The choice of cameras had little if anything to do with his graphic achievements. Using an identical Rolleiflex or 8x10 Deardorff (or even the same ones!) will not transform anyone into an Avedon clone. Repeat, not!
The man I assisted from 1952 through 1956 and 1960 through 1965 had little technical knowledge and cared less about it. He was almost totally dependent on assistants for those matters. His real talent was in knowing exactly what he wanted, and how to direct others in achieving it. Above all, he was a master of psychology.
Avedon used a Rolleiflex because that was the camera he was familiar with from the very beginning, when his father gave him one as he left for wartime service in the Merchant Marine in 1942. The later use of an 8x10 Deardorff was at first a commercial decision as his advertising clients wanted the large format images; only later did he use it for portraiture — having been inspired by the work of the great German photographer August Sander.
Did Avedon Consider Himself An Artist?
I had discussed this with him a few times back in the early 1960s. His answer was always no, he considered himself an artisan — a craftsman of sorts who was skilled at getting sitters to reveal their inner selves before his lens while allowing his own personality to dominate the resultant image.
This may have changed after I left in 1965, as his reputation and fame grew and as his portraiture work became more important — and especially after several major museum exhibitions. I had little contact with him after 1965, and none at all after the 1970s.
Richard Avedon was never averse to publicity; in fact he courted it. Fame (and notoriety!) was key to getting the sometimes reluctant personalities to submit to his introspective and often brutal renderings of their persona. There are plenty of photographers who can make a sitter look good — it took a genius like Avedon to go far beyond that and get away with it.
As I pointed out elsewhere on this thread, here and here, Avedon was only able to excercise his real talent to its fullest because he had made a substantial amount of money through his advertising photography. And the reason he attracted high-end advertisers was because of his innovative fashion photography for Harper's Bazaar magazine and, later, Vogue magazine. So, fashion opened the way for advertising, which in turn allowed him to devote time and resources to his passion for portraiture.
In the final analysis, Avedon's real talent lay in knowing what he wanted and knowing how to get people to willingly give it to him. You could call this manipulation, or just understand that he was a dynamic, charismatic director who was always in charge. Cameras had nothing to do with it.