From the time, he started working in the mid-20th Century Richard Avedon is credited with being at the forefront of a revolution in both fashion and portrait photography. When in the 1950s Avedon did not conform to the accepted approach to fashion photography he did use the stylised art deco poses where models stood in a studio looking emotionless and indifferent to the camera. Instead he created pictures of models full of emotion, smiling, laughing, and often moving in outdoor locations. Picture like the one below were considered revolutionary at the time.
In this early work, Avedon mainly used soft natural light again breaking with the convention at the time which was to use quite harsh studio lights or flash that cast pronounced shadows. Although later in the 1950’s Avedon did move to use flash. When comparing Avedon’s fashion work to earlier artists like Steichen or Horst his different approach is clear for example the picture on the left below by Steichen and the one on the right by Horst both show very rigid formal poses when compare to the work of Avedon above. To some extent advances in technology (faster emulsions et) enabled Avedon’s new approach but even without the technological advances is injection of emotion into the fashion world would have been a revolution.
As Avedon developed hi style he pushed his models further into environments that they often found uncomfortable for example the famous shot “Dovima with the Elephants” where the model Dorothy Juba (bets known as Dorvima is pictured in a Dior dress with two circus elephants.
Although Avedon’s career started with fashion photography as he became more established he became increasing interested in photographing the movers and shakers of the American social and political scenes. Many of Avedon’s portraits depict some of the most famous politicians, actors, actresses, artists, and writers of the later part of the 20th century. He was always interested in how portraiture captured the personality and perhaps the soul of its subject. In every portrait, he tried to capture this subject stripped of the Hollywood or political bravado instead aiming to represent basic human emotions.
Avedon often put his subjects under psychological pressure to generate reactions and get the picture he wanted, he was famously quoted as saying “There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth”. In his portrait work he very much decided on the picture he wanted and then tried to manipulate his subjects to get it. His picture of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor below is a classic example of his approach, these are two people who were very used to being photographed and who were well versed in putting on an act for the Camera. The story goes that to get this picture Avedon who knew the couple were great dog lovers told them that he had seen a dog being killed by a car on his way to the shoot and this is what give the rather shocked and uncomfortable image.
Many people though Avedon could be cruel in the way he portrayed his subjects he was criticised for the way he portrayed some of his subjects. He created strong portraits of elderly people that didn’t add any gloss to their condition the most infamous portraits in this style were those he took of his father in his last days. These like the one below are in many ways a brutal comment on getting old.
In the late 1970s and early 1980s Avedon toured the American West creating images of everyday working people again when this work was first shown he received criticism for being voyeuristic and exploiting his subjects. There was also a view that how could a photographer from the rich world of New York visit the west and capture true images of the hardship and suffering of the working class.
When they were exhibit Avedon’s pictures from the American West were printed life size of larger and in some cases seeing themselves portrayed in this way had a profound effect on the subjects. Perhaps the most often quoted example is that of Billy Mudd (shown below) a drifter and truck driver who was so affected by what he saw in his portrait that he returned to his family and turned his life around.
To finish with I have selected Avedon’s portrait of Maryilin Monroe looking like a lost little girl rather than the very confident star she is usually portrayed as. The story is that this is a shot that Avedon captured at the end of a long shoot when Monroe was exhausted after putting on her ‘act’ for so long. There are other pictures from early in this shoot that seem to indicate that this could be true.
In researching this post I have become fascinated by Avedon’s work what I find most interesting is the way he manipulated, perhaps even dominated his subject to get an image that he wanted rather than the one they wished to project.