By Bill Dobbins
Richard Avedon was an iconic fashion photographer much of whose work was characterized by movement and action on the part of models in a time when most fashion images still tended to be fairly posed and static. Some of Avedon’s style was the result of new technology. Prior to WWII studio lighting used was tungsten balanced continuous lighting, the kind commonly used in movie sets. This required mostly stationary posing by models in the studio, although not to the same degree as in the very early days of photography when lenses and emulsions were extremely slow and exposures of many seconds to minutes were required.
But thanks to an engineer named Harold Egerton, who developed the electronic flash as we know it, by the time Avedon began working in the late 1940s studio photographer had the use of electronic flash units which could freeze motion and by the end of the 50s he was using strobes in the studio to create a highly dynamic style. Models could jump, twist, run and dance and studio photographers were able to use bursts from an electronic flash to freeze the action.
Avedon’s photos, both in the studio and outdoors, often showed models who were active in a way that was seen as very new, modern an innovative for their time. Of course, he did many photos in which movement was not a a feature. But he liked action and movement and so in some cases would have an assistant with a strobe and umbrella on a long pole who would follow a model as she moved around the studio floor maintaining the appropriate distance to produce the correct exposure.
Most photographers are not celebrities. In general – even the best and most successful – are largely unknown by the public. Nowadays mostly everybody knows who Annie Leibovitz is but few other photographers attract very much much public attention. But the 1950s and 1960s, Richard Avedon became pretty well known. If fact, catch a broadcast of the movie Funny Face on TV be aware that the photographer played by Fred Astaire is based on Richard Avedon – who was also technical adviser on the film and created the featured still images. So it is clear Avedon was something of a celebrity at the time.
Avedon began his career in 1944 shooting advertising for a department store, but he had the extreme good fortune to come to the attention of Alexey Brodovitch, art director at Harper’s Bazaar. When legendary editor Diana Vreeland left Harper’s Bazaar for Vogue in 1962, Avedon ended up going with her.
During his long tenure at Vogue he continued to focus on a larger range of subjects beyond fashion, including portraits, celebrities and advertising. Avedon was a photographer like Irving Penn and Helmut Newton who remained successful, creative and significant for many decades until the end of their lives.
Avedon also published a lot of photo books that made his collected images available to other photographers, his fans and the culture as a whole.
Richard Avedon also was innovative in shooting fashion images outdoors and you’ll see examples of his approach in Funny Face watching photographer Dick Avery (Fred Astaire) shooting pictures of Jo Stockton (Audrey Hepburn) in various locations around the city of Paris. Again, working outdoors Avedon also liked to be able shoot models being active and in motion when possible.
The photographer in the movie Funny Face frequently shoots with a medium format Rolleiflex as did Avedon – although he worked in many formats. But working in 2 1/4 gave him the mobility needed to keep pace with actively moving models and a larger piece of film than 35mm for higher quality and the ability to easily create larger prints.
As noted above, Avedon had a very long career with continued and ongoing success. In 1982 he created a series of ads for Christian Dior, based on the idea of film stills, that created a lot of attention. He became the first staff photographer for The New Yorker in 1992. He produced large format prints of a series call In The American West – featuring cowboys, miners and other westerners – published in a best selling book.
More controversially, Avedon did a series of photographs of his dying father that are stark and uncompromising and which some critics thought to be cruel and exploitive. But they have been widely exhibited and remain compelling as well as troubling.
Many of Avedon’s most famous photographs, shot for commercial purposes, have now become regarded as fine art and are exhibited in museums and sold in photo galleries. This is also the case with many of his contemporaries like Irving Penn, David Bailey and Melvin Sokolsky. It is ironic that his photos that tend to be more highly regarded by collectors come from his commercial work rather than photos Avedon did with the intention of creating images he intended to be in the category of fine art.
This is something I call the “Charles Dickens Effect.” Dickens wrote many of his most successful novels fairly quickly to be serialized in a newspaper. And yet these books are much more highly regarded as literature than many of the works written by his contemporaries with more serious artistic intent.
Throughout most of history, before the “art market” was invented in the mid 1800s, what we now call art was produced by craftsman for commercial purposes, usually on commission from a government, the church or wealthy individuals. This was art for a practical purpose, not for art’s sake. That is actually the definition of “commercial.”
So it is significant that so much of accepted photographic art, including that of Richard Avedon, was done so often with the intention of things like selling products, copies of magazines, promoting travel, publicity and other commercial purposes. But art for pay is an established tradition. After all, both the craftsmen and artisans who built the gothic cathedrals and Michelangelo painting the Sistine Chapel got paid for their labor.
So it should come as no surprise that Richard Avedon, commercial, advertising and fashion photographer should subsequently be classified as a major artist. Rembrandt painted in order to make a living. Whatever his personal artistic ambitions, he didn’t paint groups of government officials, military leaders and merchants for his health.
Richard Avedon photos used with permission of the Richard Avedon Foundation.
Bill Dobbins is a pro photographer located in the Westwood area of Los Angeles. He is a veteran photographer and videographer who has exhibited his fine art in two museums and a number of galleries and who has published eight books, including two fine art photo books: