like his compelling and expansive body of work, richard avedon – one of the greatest fashion photographers of the 20th century – was a walking iconoclast of a contradiction. he was irrepressibly the life of any party, yet he often retreated into private, sullen moments. he was easy going and charming, yet almost autocratic when it came to photography.
watching a documentary from the ‘american masters’ series on him, the above was almost immediately apparent. there was something within avedon that always desired to challenge, even if it was himself. he made his mark at the age of 20 as the rising star of the world of fashion photography, shooting ‘seminal spreads’ for harper’s bazaar and later on vogue. he revolutionised the way that fashion was shot – shifting away from the static and predictable towards the dynamic and sometimes bizarre. models whom he had worked with described him as a ‘ballerina with a camera’, dancing alongside them while he took their pictures on his trusty ‘rolleiflex’, calling encouragement and seeking emulation. it was as though he understood that the only way for his creative vision to solidify was to coax it out, much like the ritual of courtship.
true to his vision and style, avedon seeked to capture multiple elements, most times at odds, in his photographs. in the iconic ‘dovima with the elephants – evening dress by dior’, he juxtaposed the smooth delicacy of the model and her dress against the raw, gritty mass of the elephants, creating a contrast that brought the dress out yet maintaining stability in the picture by the melding of forms (the lines formed by the model and the elephants). this contrast is also famously present in his portraiture, in which he would pose his subjects against a plain white background most of the time, giving them nowhere to hide, exposing the beauty of their true selves yet presenting the cruelty of their physical imperfections.
in the later years of his life, avedon expressed his growing disillusionment with fashion and began shifting his attention towards documentary photography. his efforts produced what he personally considered his greatest series of work – in the american west – in which he spent years in the west shooting the land and its people. critics accused him – a rich, successful east sider – of exploitation. however there was a particularly interesting anecdote that spoke of how a man, steeped in depression, chanced upon a larger than life portrait of his half naked, ravaged self shot by avedon and resolved to turn his life around.
those are perhaps the finest contradictions embodied by photography – invasive yet creating an intimacy that touches life; fleeting yet possessing the ability to effect permanence.
it may be true that richard avedon was a man of contradictions. but by that he must have held within him the essence and the spirit of his chosen craft. and he did. though he may have passed on, his works are very much alive.
to view avedon’s works, click here.
to view more posts on my thoughts, click here.