FLY ON THE WALL OF FAME: BEHIND THE LENS OF RICHARD AVEDON
By Alice Cary
As a photographer, you are always on the cusp of something; waiting for something to happen, capturing moments that would go otherwise unseen. For image-maker, Richard Avedon, this concept of natural spontaneity was the crux his work. He pioneered the mergence of fashion and documentary photography and made the occurrences of natural expressions the norm in fashion images.
Avedon established this style of documentary photography after serving as a Photographer’s Mate Second Class in the US Marines during WWII, where he photographed the crewmen on his Rolliflex. Following this, in 1944––while working as a photographer for a department store––he was mentored by Russian photographer, Alexey Brodovitch. At the time, Brodovitch was Art Director of Harper’s Bazaar and Avedon quickly became the magazine’s lead photographer. He then went on to take photographs for Life and Vogue, while simultaneously continuing with his own work. When working for these publications, Avedon founded a style of photography that was previously unfamiliar to the fashion industry; he often shot in outdoor locations with models running or jumping. This natural flare and energy contrasted the stark, sometimes lifeless fashion shots that were being produced by his predecessors. His monochrome photographs of Stella Tennant in Visionaire 22 CHIC typify this charge of emotions; in both images she glares into the camera, her head tilted. Similarly, his image of Penelope Tree (rendered on a metal plate) for Visionaire 63 FOREVER shows her staring, eyes wide through an Ungaro mask.
During his childhood, Avedon witnessed the psychiatric traumas of his first muse, his sister Louise, who was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager. It was perhaps this early insight that subsequently brought such emotion and vivacity to Avedon’s work–– his subjects are often captured in moments of heightened emotion. Whether laughing or looking piercingly into the distance, they are caught in states of nonthinking. He has captured intimate moments with icons of the 20th century including: Marilyn Monroe, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr, Audrey Hepburn, Elizabeth Taylor and Andy Warhol. Avedon had charm and authenticity––it was perhaps this that enabled him to extract such rare moments from the famous and ‘untouchable.’ Evidence of this can be seen in the series of unseen films Visionaire showed at The Gallery at Cadillac House in September 2016 in association with The Richard Avedon Foundation. In the behind the scenes footage of Lauren Hutton, Jun Ropé and James King, he can be seen joking and conversing.
Although Avedon photographed the figureheads who shaped the 20th century in the arts, politics and civil rights, his most monumental work is arguably his ‘Nothing Personal’ series. These photographs represent America’s identity and how Americans relate to ideas of race and civil rights, in addition to the way they relate to other Americans.The collection of images, now an exhibition at the Pace Gallery showing through January 13, was first published as a book in 1964 with a foreword by his high school classmate, James Baldwin. The pair traveled extensively during 1963 and 1964 to photograph a variety of people: from Malcolm X to George Wallace, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to patients of a mental institution. In conjunction with the exhibition, TASCHEN have republished the book with an introduction by Hilton Als, in addition to unpublished photographs and archive material.