Richard Avedon (May 15, 1923 – October 1, 2004) was an American fashion and portrait photographer. An obituary published in The New York Times said that "his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America's image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century".
Avedon was born in New York City, to a Jewish family. He was the son of Jacob Israel Avedon, a Russian-born immigrant who after working menial jobs started a successful retail dress business on Fifth Avenue called Avedon’s Fifth Avenue. His mother Anna, came from a family that owned a dress manufacturing business. She had encouraged his love of fashion and art. At the age of 12, Richard Avedon’s interests sparked in the photography world when he joined the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) Camera Club. He would use his family’s Kodak Box Brownie to feed his curiosity of the world around him but also as a means to retreat from his personal life. His father was a critical and remote disciplinarian who insisted that physical strength, education and money prepared one for the world. His younger sister Louise became his first muse as she was a beautiful subject to capture on film. Louise had struggled her teenage years in psychiatric treatment becoming more and more withdrawn from reality and eventually was diagnosed with schizophrenia. These early influences of fashion and family would later shape his life and career through his love to capture tragic beauty in a photo.
Richard Avedon attended DeWitt Clinton High School in Bedford Park, Bronx, where he worked on the school paper The Magpie with James Baldwin from 1937 until 1940. In addition to his continued interest in fashion and photography, Avedon also developed an affinity for poetry in high school and during his senior year, in 1941, Avedon was named “Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools. After graduating from DeWitt in 1941, Avedon enrolled at Columbia University, to study philosophy and poetry but dropped out after one year. Avedon then started as a photographer for the Merchant Marines in 1942, taking identification pictures of the crewmen with his Rolleiflex camera given to him by his father as a going-away present. From 1944 to 1950, he studied photography with Alexey Brodovitch at his Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research.
Richard spent some years photographing daily life in New York City. While editor Carmel Snow covered the runway shows, Richard had the task of staging photographs of models while they wore new fashions out in the city. He created beautiful and elegant black and white photographs in real life settings, such as in Paris’ cabarets, streetcars, and cafes. Avedon changed the conventional mold where models had to show indifference. He encouraged the models to laugh, play in the rain, embrace athletes and show other emotions. This is what made his photography unique at that time.
Highlights and Achievements.
In 1959, Avedon published a book of photography entitled Observations with text by Truman Capote. In 1963, he took photographs of the Civil Rights Movement that was happening in the South. He then collaborated with James Baldwin on the book Nothing Personal. He left Harper’s Bazaar and became a staff photographer at Vogue. During the early 1960s and 1970s, Avedon also photographed antiwar protesters in the United States, military leaders, and the war victims in Vietnam. He even documented the night West and East Berlin become one. In 1992, he became the first staff photographer for the The New Yorker.
In his career, Avedon has been honored as a straight photographer and he has authored nine books, including The Sixties, Alice in Wonderland, Evidence, In the American West and others. Avedon's work is included in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C.; Amon Carter Museum, Ft. Worth, Texas; and Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, among many other museums and institutions worldwide. Supported by Leonard A. Lauder and Larry Gagosian, the Avedon Foundation gave 74 Avedon images to the Israel Museum in 2013. Included in the gift is a 20-by-8-foot mural of Allen Ginsberg’s family, along with a complete set of the artist’s four smaller-format murals — they range in size from 8 by 10 inches to 22 by 40 inches — that he created between 1969 and 1971.
Avedon had also numerous museum exhibitions around the world. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, presented two solo exhibitions during his lifetime, in 1978 and 2002. In 1980 another retrospective was organized by the University Art Museum in Berkeley. Major retrospectives were mounted at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York (1994), and at the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humblebaek, Denmark (2007; traveled to Milan, Paris, Berlin, Amsterdam and San Francisco, through 2009). Showing Avedon's work from his earliest, sun-splashed pictures in 1944 to portraits in 2000 that convey his fashion fatigue, the International Center of Photography in 2009 mounted the largest survey of the photographer's fashion work. Also in 2009, the Corcoran Gallery of Art showed "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power", bringing together the photographer's political portraits for the first time.
In 1944, Avedon married a model who was professionally known as Doe Avedon. After five years of marriage, they divorced. In 1951, he married Evelyn Franklin, but they also divorced. Hollywood presented a musical entitled Funny Face in his honor in which Fred Astaire starred as the fashion photographer, Dick Avery.
In September of 2004, Avedon suffered a brain hemorrhage while in San Antonio, Texas. He was shooting an assignment entitled On Democracy for The New Yorker. The project focused on the 2004 US presidential elections and featured portraits of delegates and candidates. He later died on October 1 while still in San Antonio.