Richard Avedon


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Photographer. During the early years of his career, Avedon helped to revolutionize fashion photography, to which he brought new levels of complexity and vitality. Later he amassed a collective portrait of the postwar American experience. This achievement includes arresting large-scale portraits and figure studies that interrogate beauty, power, style, and identity. A lifelong Manhattanite, Avedon studied at Columbia University for a year before entering the Merchant Marine, where he first worked as a photographer. Upon release in 1944, he attended the Design Laboratory run by graphic designer Alexey Brodovitch (1898–1971) and the following year went to work at Harper's Bazaar, where Brodovitch was art director. In one of his most famous fashion shots, Dovima with Elephants, Paris (1955), he juxtaposed a celebrated model in a Dior evening gown with a pair of elephants. Their ungainliness contrasts with her perfection, while their restlessness seems to be held in check by the power of her glamour. Such work, at the forefront of a new trend in fashion photography, shifted interest from clothing to attitude. Avedon stayed at Harper's Bazaar until 1965, then worked for more than two decades with art director Alexander Liberman at Vogue. In the 1940s, he also photographed street life in New York and in Europe. With time he expanded his range to engage portraiture, advertising, and photojournalism. By 1957 Avedon was so famous that his life inspired the movie Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. From 1992 until his death he served as the New Yorker magazine's first staff photographer. In the 1960s and 1970s, Avedon's ambition drove him ever deeper into the American national character. He recorded pivotal historical events, often by isolating protagonists whose individual psychology he examined in interaction with contemporary culture. He frequently abstracted these subjects against white backgrounds, intensifying their physicality and isolating their psychological uniqueness. In 1963 he recorded the civil rights movement in the South and spent three weeks visiting a mental hospital, shooting an unsparing but sympathetic series. In 1971 he went to Vietnam. Between 1969 and 1973 he produced an extended serial portrait of his father as he died of cancer. From 1979 until 1985 he took on the myth of the frontier West, photographing individual workers whose faces and bodies attest to the region's tensions, disappointments, and fortitude. When the Berlin Wall came down on New Year's Eve 1989, Avedon was there. In characteristic portraits he closed in on sitters with a large-format view camera and wide-angle lens to record every pore and stray hair. He then enlarged these images to life size or greater for exhibition, giving them a compelling presence. In the 1990s he experimented with combinations of negatives in a single image. Most of his work is in black and white. His collections include Observations (1959), Nothing Personal (1964), Portraits (1976), Avedon: Photographs 1947–1977 (1978), In the American West (1985), An Autobiography (1993), Evidence: 1944–1994 (1994), and Avedon: The Sixties (1999).

Subjects: Photography and Photographs.

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