Richard Avedon didn’t want a memorial. In fact, he repeatedly forbade his family from having one and, in his lifetime, made them promise to abide by his wishes. He died on October 1, 2004, while on assignment for The New Yorker in San Antonio, Texas, after suffering a cerebral hemorrhage. “He always said he wanted to go out with his boots on,” according to the model Lauren Hutton.

In the days and weeks and months that followed, obituaries ran in newspapers around the world, and tributes were printed in the magazines he had helped thrust into the modern fashion lexicon, including Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. But no public coffin. No long lines of mourners or emotional eulogies.

For a long time, I found this absolutely fascinating. Here was a man who had had an enormous banner unfurled bearing his last name—AVEDON scribbled in his iconic, florid signature—on the front of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art when his first exhibition debuted there, in 1978.

Avedon, left, and Fred Astaire, whose role in 1957’s Funny Face was inspired by the photographer.

He was notorious for his work ethic, a sense of ambition that was larger than life, and a body of work that undeniably defined contemporary photography in the 20th century. He was the inspiration for Fred Astaire’s role as the debonair photographer in the 1957 film Funny Face! Why wouldn’t he allow his legions of friends, collaborators, and fans to come together and pay tribute? He was just gone?

Avedon was the first photographer’s name I ever knew. Growing up in the suburbs of St. Louis, I became a self-educated pop-culture historian by stealing fashion magazines from doctors’ offices and spending hours at the local Barnes & Noble poring over the art, fashion, and photography books. I was so consumed by The Naked and the Dressed: 20 Years of Versace by Avedon, which was published in 1998, that I started to hide it in another section of the store so no one else could find it.

Tina Turner, photographed by Avedon in New York in 1971.

I moved to New York City in 2000 to attend journalism school. In the fall of 2002, the Metropolitan Museum of Art organized a show called “Portraits,” which featured Avedon’s most iconic sittings, and I went to see it every Saturday I could. Those images exposed everything about their subjects but also left the viewer wanting to know more. I’d discover something or someone new with every visit, and would write down a name or another detail in my notebook and race back to my dorm room to look it up on the Internet.

On my last trip to the museum before the show closed, I bought a framed poster in the gift shop of Avedon’s portrait of Marilyn Monroe, which still hangs in my office. (Now she looks down pensively on all of my Zoom calls.)

A Date with Destiny

Avedon strove to be known for much more than being a mere fashion photographer. But, from childhood, that seemed like his destiny.

Born to Russian-Jewish immigrants in 1923, his family owned a women’s-clothing store called Avedon’s Fifth Avenue, and he’d watch fashion editors come in to see the collections. He ripped out pages from their magazines, which featured the great photographers of the 1930s, and hung them on the walls around his bed the same way some kids used baseball cards as wallpaper. He grew up in a family dominated by women and was always aware of the vanity of women in relation to their looks.

Charlie Chaplin, photographed by Avedon in New York in 1952.

But the most telling detail of Avedon’s childhood: his parents would often pose him and his sister, Louise, for family portraits that were artificially constructed and stylized versions of the American Dream. They’d stand in front of a Packard automobile they didn’t own or under the awning of a Fifth Avenue apartment building they didn’t live in. Avedon once observed that in a single year of these family portraits, he’s holding 13 different dogs, none of which was actually his.

Avedon dropped out of high school before graduating and enlisted in the Merchant Marine in 1942, during World War II, where his job was to photograph crewmen for their identification cards. “I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer,” Avedon once remarked. Black-and-white headshots in front of stark, bare backgrounds: Sound familiar?

After the service, he came back to Manhattan with the driving ambition to work for Harper’s Bazaar. Vogue’s illustrious creative director Alexander Liberman rang him up—not a bad guy for a fledgling fashion lensman to know—but he declined a meeting, even as he was hungry for work and Bazaar wasn’t calling him back. He was determined to land in the lap of Alexey Brodovitch, Bazaar’s legendary art director.

Diana Vreeland, Dovima, and Avedon on set for Harper’s Bazaar in 1955.

With a portfolio composed of pictures he took using models and clothes secured from local department stores after he promised to produce free ads for them, he finally did. His first photographs ran in the November 1944 issue of Harper’s Bazaar. He was 21.

“I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me I was becoming a photographer.”

Avedon’s first strides in what would become a marathon fashion career were taken under the tutelage of Brodovitch and Carmel Snow, the magazine’s editor, an exacting Irishwoman, and with the collaborative efforts of Diana Vreeland, a larger-than-life fashion editor who would go on to become a legend in her own right.

Dovima, photographed by Avedon in Paris in 1955.

He ventured out of the studio and photographed editorials on the streets, at the beach, in casinos and nightclubs. With him, models were no longer stiff mannequins in rigid couture. Instead, readers began to see them moving, jumping, laughing, pouting, boozing, roller-skating, playing roulette, visiting a street fair, and living life in fabulous clothes that popped off the page. It was a revelation. The model Cindy Crawford, who worked with Avedon years later, describes his process as teaching her how to “come alive.”

The September 1955 issue of Harper’s Bazaar published what has become one of the most important—and valuable—images in photographic history. Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’ Hiver, Paris, August 1955 features one of Avedon’s favorite models, a young woman from Queens whose nom de guerre was created by combining the first two letters of her given names, Dorothy Virginia Margaret. She’s posing in front of elephants, a mix of Parisian elegance and unexpected animalistic grace.

Elizabeth Taylor, photographed by Avedon in New York in 1964.

Avedon’s career flourished in the middle of the 20th century, but his contributions to the history of the medium of photography went far beyond fashion imagery. In 1962, he was mesmerized by the outsize media attention fueled by the paparazzi following Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, so he cast Mike Nichols and Suzy Parker in a fashion story that re-created the drama of an incredibly famous couple out on the town in Paris. According to photographer Ethan James Green, this specific shoot was the moment when the fashion editorial narrative was conceived.

In 1958 Avedon photographed China Machado effortlessly flicking a lit cigarette, wearing a dinner dress and jacket by Ben Zuckerman. He wanted her pictures to run in the magazine but the publisher balked at using a nonwhite model. Avedon’s Bazaar contract was up for renewal, so he refused to sign it if they didn’t run the picture, which ultimately guaranteed that Machado would be the first model of color to be regularly featured in the magazine.

China Machado, photographed by Avedon in New York in 1958.

Avedon guest-edited the April 1965 issue, and was responsible for all of its original photography. The cover featured Jean Shrimpton wearing a Matisse-inspired, hot-pink, cutout astronaut helmet. Ruth Ansel, the art director of that issue, remembered, “It caused a sensation. Nobody believed a woman would become an astronaut.” Inside were features on Bob Dylan and go-go boots, and a fashion story featuring Paul McCartney wearing a NASA space suit. George Segal, Roy Lichtenstein, and Robert Rauschenberg contributed artwork or appeared in the issue.

Richard Avedon ventured out of the studio and photographed editorials on the streets, at the beach, in casinos and nightclubs.

Most memorably, Avedon photographed Donyale Luna in a multi-page story, the first such spread in the magazine’s history to feature a Black model. More than half a century later, this issue still sets a bar for how to portray the culture around us in a fashion magazine.

After two decades at Harper’s Bazaar, in 1966 Avedon followed Vreeland to Vogue, where he worked for nearly a quarter of a century. In 1992, he joined The New Yorker as the first staff photographer in the literary journal’s history. This is also the period in his career when he contributed many of his most memorable fashion images to Égoïste, a French magazine that allowed him to experiment in a way that American ones did not.

Uma Thurman, photographed by Avedon for a 1996 cover of Egoïste magazine.

An article in The New York Times published in 2020 points out that, in the 1960s, three of Avedon’s closest friends were reveling in moments of incredible critical acclaim. Truman Capote was heralded for inventing the nonfiction novel with In Cold Blood, Mike Nichols won an Oscar for The Graduate, and Leonard Bernstein won a Grammy for his Symphony. The relentlessly competitive Avedon wanted to leave a larger mark on the world than his fashion work, and in many ways the fashion-photographer moniker became a psychological hindrance. It’s what spurred him to become one of the world’s most sought-after portrait artists.

Was there anyone of note in the second half of the 20th century who did not end up in front of Avedon’s camera? Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Tina Turner, Audrey Hepburn, Hillary Clinton, Charlie Chaplin, Elizabeth Taylor, Francis Bacon, President Eisenhower. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Avedon re-invented his group portraiture with startling, memorable murals of subjects like Andy Warhol’s Factory and the poet Allen Ginsberg’s family. In 2004 he took a color photograph for The New Yorker of an Illinois senator named Barack Obama.

Martin Luther King Jr., center, with his father, Martin Luther King, and his son, Martin Luther King III, photographed by Avedon in Atlanta in 1963.

In 1976 Rolling Stone published an issue devoted to a portfolio called “The Family,” which was shot entirely by Avedon. He spent months traversing the United States to photograph the people he said constituted the political and media elite.

The relentlessly competitive Avedon wanted to leave a larger mark on the world than his fashion work. It’s what spurred him to become one of the world’s most sought-after portrait artists.

In total, there were 69 black-and-white portraits featuring presidents past (Carter, Ford) and future (George Bush is shot here as the head of the C.I.A.), as well as The Washington Post’s Katharine Graham and W. Mark Felt, who admitted to being Deep Throat in a Vanity Fair article in 2005. When he photographed Henry Kissinger, Kissinger said only two words to Avedon: “Be kind.” Like many, Kissinger feared Avedon’s lens. He knew his likeness in front of that camera would define him.

Henry Kissinger, photographed by Avedon in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

Avedon published his memoir, An Autobiography, in 1993. The book doesn’t have a lot of words, so it’s more of a personal retrospective than a traditional autobiography. But the interplay of images has an incredibly loud subtext.

The spread that strikes me most consists of an image of the model Dovima, dressed to the nines and posing like a pro, opposite an intimate portrait of Avedon’s dying father, Jacob Israel Avedon, an old man in a hospital gown and lying in bed, having just come out of surgery.

In a TV interview to promote the book, Avedon looks at this spread and asks, “Fighting death by dressing up?” He’s moved by the juxtaposition of fashion and death, not shocked. It’s how he has observed the world: “Walk down Madison Avenue and you’ll see someone shopping on the same block as someone who’s dying.” He pauses, catches himself, and decides he doesn’t want to explain the images or what they mean any further. “Putting it into words demeans it.”

That’s when it clicked: Who needs a memorial when your art is immortal?

This essay was adapted from Avedon 100, available online and in selected stores beginning in early May, with a nationwide distribution by Rizzoli to follow in the fall of this year. A corresponding exhibition opens May 4 at Gagosian gallery’s West 21st Street space, in New York, where it will be on until June 24

Derek Blasberg is a best-selling author, editor, and senior staffer at Gagosian gallery