Richard Avedon, master of portrait photography

Richard Avedon (1923 – 2004) was one of the great masters of portrait photography of the second half of the 20th century.

The way he conceived photography was undoubtedly reflected in his pictures, and had a transcendent impact on the art of portraiture. For more than five decades he left his mark on fashion photography, celebrities, politicians and common people.

The New York-born photographer said his intention was to make portraits as intense as the people themselves.

He thought that the portrait was not like an emotion or a fact, but rather an opinion. An opinion biased by the photographer and also by the person photographed, whose knowledge of being portrayed has an influence on the outcome. 

"My portraits say more about me than about the people I photograph"

Richard Avedon's intimate portraits

To reflect the intensity of the human being in his portraits, Richard Avedon took the person to his studio for several hours. In that isolation, using a white background, he was able to capture in the black and white photos the diverse and unexpected features of the emotions of the person photographed.

The result went beyond the apparent simplicity of the staging, as the photographer obtained an intimate and profound portrait of the subject.

His famous portraits include Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, the Kennedys, George Bush, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Audrey Hepburn, the Dukes of Windsor and Ralph Fiennes. 

Avedon and fashion photography

Richard Avedon transformed fashion photography from the 1940s and, above all, the role of the models themselves. He photographed them in action, in locations previously uncommon, such as cafés, casinos and streets.  

He built scenes for the models and made them the protagonists of the photo, as well as the clothes and style they wore. 

Her photograph of the model Dovima, dressed in Dior and surrounded by elephants, taken in 1955 at the Cirque d’Hiver in Paris, is famous. Another well-known photo shows models Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall skating in Dior suits at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. 

Richard Avedon’s fashion photographs were immortalized on the covers of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue and Egoïste.

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Marlon Brando, April 19, 1951 #richardavedon #marlonbrando

Una publicación compartida de The Richard Avedon Foundation (@avedonfoundation) el

In the American West

Richard Avedon devoted much of his work to portraying the United States, especially the marginalized and excluded. His focus was on the human being, he has extensive portrait work from the civil rights movement.

One of his most important works is In the American West, 123 pictures selected after photographing more than 750 people. He deployed this work between 1979 and 1985, in 17 states of his country on behalf of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.

He photographed ex-convicts, drunks, cowboys, housewives, farmers, vagrants, ordinary people who didn’t stand out at all. He used only natural light and the white background to isolate the portrait from any element around it.

Another work of great transcendence is the book Nothing personal (1964). He did it in collaboration with his friend and civil rights activist, James Baldwin, author of the texts. Both had been classmates at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, where they co-edited the literary magazine The Magpie.

The book explores the complexities and formation of American identity. Avedon photographed civil rights fighters, intellectuals, artists, politicians, common people, and patients in a psychiatric hospital.

The portrait master was also interested in immortalizing the Berliners on the night of December 31, 1989, shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall. On New Year’s Eve he took photos at the Brandenburg Gate. In the pictures he reflected at the same time the joy and uncertainty of the Germans for the future.

History of Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon has been interested in photography since childhood. At the age of twelve, he was a member of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) photography club. In 1942 he joined the merchant navy as a photographer. He was in charge of taking a thousand identification photographs of the sailors, a job that ended up training him as a photographer, according to Avedon himself.

When he left the navy, he had art director Alexey Brodovitch as his teacher. At the age of 22, he began working for Harper’s Bazaar magazine. He also began working for magazines such as Life, Look and Theathe Arts. In 1965 he joined Vogue, and in 1992 he became the first photographer of The New Yorker. 

Throughout his career he combined fashion, documentary and commercial photography. He carried out advertising campaigns for large firms such as Revlon, Versace, Calvin Klein and Christian Dior, and divulged his art in books and exhibitions.

Richard Avedon died in San Antonio, Texas, at the age of 81.

You can see many of Avedon’s photos on his foundation site.

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