Richard Avedon’s first camera was a Kodak Box Brownie. He was 12, and he took it with him to a Young Men’s Hebrew Association Camera Club meeting in New York. Within a few years he’d made a muse of his beautiful younger sister, Louise, who sadly was diagnosed with schizophrenia in her 20s. Their close relationship produced photographs that showed a developing compositional style.

Avedon’s big break came in 1944, when he was 21. He enrolled in a class at the New School for Social Research, where Alexey Brodovitch, then the art director at Harper’s Bazaar, was teaching, and soon became his protégé. A year later he shot his first photographs for the magazine.

A self-portrait taken by the photographer in 1980.

In 1949, Avedon photographed Truman Capote for the first time; 10 years later they collaborated on a book with Brodovitch. The boldly designed Observations captured luminaries such as Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, and Jacques Cousteau. In 1960, when Capote was in Garden City, Kansas, chronicling the Clutter-family case, Avedon went out to join him on four occasions. His black-and-white shots of murderers Perry Smith and Richard “Dick” Hickock, their arm tattoos exposed, live on in collective memory.

Where Avedon’s earlier photographs were more narrative, his work after 1980 evolved to capture moments. The fashion landscape was changing, with Italian tailors rising to full-fledged fashion designers. In 1979, he collaborated with Gianni Versace for the first time, covering his spring-summer 1980 campaign. Avedon was 56, the designer was 32, and it was the start of a symbiotic friendship. “I look for the roots of classicism,” Versace said in a 1994 interview. “And this is what Mr. Avedon understands about me.”

In the new book Richard Avedon: Relationships, released in tandem with a recent exhibition at Milan’s Palazzo Reale, 100 photographs trace the photographer’s friendships with other artists—among them Capote and Versace, Jasper Johns, and the novelist Carson McCullers. Though he was a true auteur, Avedon embraced collaboration. —Elena Clavarino

Elena Clavarino is the Senior Editor for AIR MAIL