Avedon, Richard

Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004) was an American photographer able to take his early successes in fashion photography and successfully expand them into the realm of fine art.

Born in New York City, Avedon briefly attended Columbia University before becoming a photographer for the Merchant Marines in 1942. In 1944, he was discovered by the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar and in 1946 became the magazine’s chief photographer. Breaking the established mold, Avedon did not conform to the standard technique of taking fashion photographs with emotionless models, but instead showed models full of emotion – smiling, laughing, and often in action.

In 1966, he was lured to Vogue where he continued to focus on fashion photography, but expanded his subject matter to news of the day – photographing patients of mental hospitals, experiences during the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War protesters, and the fall of the Berlin Wall.

During this period, Richard Avedon created two infamous sets of The Beatles portraits. The first, taken in 1967, became the first massively successful rock poster and consisted of individual psychedelic portraits of each member of the group. The next year, he photographed the much more restrained rock stars whose image was included on The White Album.

Always interested in how portraiture captured the personality and soul of its subjects, Avedon’s reputation as a photographer became widely known as he shot pictures of many celebrities. His portraits are easily distinguished by their minimalist style; the subject looks squarely into the lens of the camera, often posed in front of a sheer white background.

He is also distinguished by his large prints, sometimes measuring over three feet in height. His large-format portrait work of drifters, miners, cowboys, and others from the western United States became a best-selling book and traveling exhibit entitled In the American West and is regarded as an important hallmark in 20th-century portrait photography and by some as Avedon’s magnum opus. Commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, it was a six-year project Avedon embarked on in 1979 that produced 125 portraits of people in the American west who caught Avedon’s eye.

After he became the first staff photographer for The New Yorker in 1992, Avedon won many awards for his photography, including the International Center of Photography Master of Photography Award in 1993, the Prix Nadar in 1994, and the Royal Photographic Society 150th Anniversary Medal in 2003. He died in 2004, easily regarded as one of the most important and talented photographers of the 20th century.