Photography critic Philip Gefter doesn’t waste any time placing Richard Avedon in the pantheon of greats, including Nadar, the 19th-century portrait photographer who captured the artists of Second Empire France in his Paris studio, Julia Margaret Cameron of Victorian England, the early-20th-century German photographer August Sander, and, of course, Irving Penn, to whom Avedon was linked throughout his career.
In the introduction to Gefter’s 672-page biography, What Becomes a Legend Most, the author also compares Avedon to portrait artists as varied as John Singer Sargent, Pablo Picasso, and Andy Warhol. This may seem like a stretch, especially given that photography was not elevated to the stature of art until more recently. But, as Gefter writes, like Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych or Sargent’s Madame X, Avedon’s portraits are “recognizably Avedons first, even before the viewer identifies his subject.”
And with that point, Gefter sets out to frame his subject in the context of his upbringing in New York City in the late 1930s, the only son of a blouse-shop owner, to the early years of Avedon’s career, when he was taking inspiration from such mentors as Jerome Robbins, Lillian Bassman, and Truman Capote. We learn of the photographer’s early stirrings of homosexual longing at summer camp, the failures at school that propelled him to succeed outside the classroom, and his unusual family dynamic, which included an incestuous relationship with his cousin Margie.
From the age of 12, Avedon was inspired by Fred Astaire. He befriended James Baldwin and harbored high-school ambitions to become a poet. (Some early verse is included in the book.) Photography also came early—in the form of a Brownie camera that Avedon used to photograph guests at funerals he crashed with Margie. His modest room in his family’s Upper West Side apartment was covered with Munkacsi, Steichen, and Man Ray reproductions, images that exposed him to new worlds. Ultimately, his father’s disapproval of his emotional frailty is what drove Avedon to succeed. Fashion magazines and literature became a way out of his unhappy family life, an aspiration to a world he wanted to join.
Avedon took inspiration from such mentors as Jerome Robbins, Lillian Bassman, and Truman Capote.
Through a job at a photography studio, he was finally able to access that glamour at places like the Stork Club and in the pages of magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar. Avedon dropped out of high school to join the Merchant Marine in 1942 and became the assistant to the chief photographer. The thousands of stark, forensic ID pictures he shot in the U.S. Maritime Service photo studio at Sheepshead Bay became the foundation of his photographic style.
Later, he learned how to move, and to capture movement, by studying modern dance with the Martha Graham Dance Company. If Penn was the “precise, exacting intellectual,” then Avedon’s work—particularly his fashion photographs—is instantly recognizable for its movement and energy, the way he taught his models to dance in front of his camera. His friendship with Carmel Snow, the legendary editor of Harper’s Bazaar, and her art director Alexey Brodovitch sealed Avedon’s early career as a fashion photographer. Diana Vreeland became “my crazy aunt.”
What would become known—and instantly recognizable—as “the Avedon woman” emerged on the photographer’s first Harper’s Bazaar cover, in 1947: an unaffected, spontaneous, and slightly mischievous self-possessed individual. “Avedon would reinvent what a beautiful woman is, and the visualization of that idea, over and over and over again in his photographs,” Gefter writes.
Work and Life
Although he married twice, Avedon struggled with his own sexuality and sought psychiatric counsel for most of his life in an attempt to address what he felt was a problem. Eventually, he would come to understand the scars of his relationship with his father, and reconcile with his Jewish identity, a part of himself he had always negated.
The portrait that emerges in these pages is not only a biography of the artist—his professional triumphs and disappointments and personal demons—but also a beautifully written assessment of his work, which brings Avedon to life and also vividly evokes his most memorable images. In many ways the most interesting part of the book is the exploration of Avedon’s image construction. One doesn’t even need to see The Turban, one of Avedon’s first fashion photos, to remember it as Gefter describes it. Shot in Paris in 1948, the model, Elise Daniels, is seated at a table in a nightclub, diamonds dripping from her ear, a “frothy” tulle turban on her head. She stares beyond the picture frame, mesmerized by something in the distance. A male companion leans in next to her. We, the viewers, feel as if we’ve just walked by their table. As Gefter puts it so eloquently, “He expressed the poetics of his own enchantment with Paris in this image.”
Gefter brings to life other iconic images, too, recounting the way Avedon captured the model Dovima posing regally between two elephants in Paris’s Cirque d’Hiver; the skin-crawling “shock surprise” of Beekeeper; and the voluptuous Nastassja Kinski wrapped only in a boa constrictor. There is the young Jacqueline Kennedy on the eve of her husband’s inauguration, and the deflated Marilyn Monroe, still glamorous yet emotionally empty at the end of a long photo session.
Then there are the epic, controversial portraits from the 1985 “In the American West” exhibition. A result of five years’ work, the photographs were of ordinary people living and working in the western U.S. At the time of the show, which opened at the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, in Fort Worth, Texas, and traveled to six different museums around the nation, Avedon was criticized for portraying his subjects with coldness and a lack of humanity, a judgment that would haunt his career. But one could also argue, as Gefter does, that Avedon’s style was to strip portraiture down to a minimal, confrontational image that did not idealize the subject. It was an approach and a style that was completely in sync with his time, and so became an important expression of American modernism.
Kate Betts is the former Editor in Chief of Harper’s Bazaar and the author of My Paris Dream: An Education in Style, Slang, and Seduction in the Great City on the Seine