In her new book Lives of the Great Photographers (Thames & Hudson), author Juliet Hacking, who is program director of the MA in Photography (Contemporary and Historical) at Sotheby’s Institute of Art, London, examines the lives and works of thirty-eight remarkable photographers. In this excerpt, she covers the early life and career of Richard Avedon.
Celebrated for having brought movement and dynamism to American fashion photography, Richard Avedon is equally renowned for his static, pin-sharp portraits that made icons of even the most marginal members of American society. Pivotal to his career as a photographer was his twenty-year stint, beginning in 1945, as staff photographer at Harper’s Bazaar, a role that provided him with financial security, equipment and assistants, a mentor in Alexey Brodovitch, and international commissions that broadened his horizons beyond those of his native country. Avedon’s distinctive style of photography, alternating between the poles of stasis and motion, developed early and was remarkably stable throughout his sixty-year career.
Avedon’s father, Jacob Israel Avedon, was a Russian-born Jew who grew up in an orphanage on New York’s Lower East Side. In Avedon’s youth, Jacob and his brother Sam were the proprietors of Avedon’s Fifth Avenue, a women’s department store located between 39th and 40th Streets. Like so many of his contemporaries in photography, Avedon grew up in a household that dramatized the tensions between commerce and art. While his father provided for the family through trade, his mother, who allegedly “hated businessmen and adored artists” privileged the liberal, cosmopolitan accomplishments that money could not buy. Anna Avedon would bring the children into Manhattan from their home in Cedarhurst, Long Island, to visit museums and attend concerts (the family later lived on the Upper East Side, at 55 East 86th Street).
According to Avedon, it was at the Frick Collection at the age of nine that he saw Rembrandt’s Polish Rider (c. 1655), a work that, “for a long time … meant everything in the world to me. I was that young man.” Avedon, who was the owner of a Kodak Box Brownie at the age of twelve – the same age at which he joined the camera club of the Young Men’s Hebrew Association – claimed to have been taught to use a camera by his father. He also claimed that his first portrait was the image of his sister that he created on his body by attaching a negative to his shoulder with surgical tape, keeping it there for two or three days.8 In his senior year at DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, Avedon was appointed editor-in-chief of the school’s cultural magazine, the literary editor of which was the future author and civil rights activist James Baldwin. What he did after graduating from high school is unclear; according to Avedon, he worked as an errand boy and assistant in a neighbor’s photography studio.
In 1942 Avedon joined the US Merchant Marine and became Photographer’s Mate, Second Class. Stationed in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, he took photographs for identity cards; he also worked for the mariners’ magazine The Helm. Following his discharge from the service in 1944, he decided to try and make a living from photography using the Rolleiflex his father had given him. According to one account, his very first attempt involved an approach to Bonwit Teller, the upmarket women’s department store in Manhattan, to loan him some clothes; these he photographed on a hired model before selling the photographs to the store, which used them in one of its elevators. Like the story of his job as an errand boy, the story of Bonwit Teller honored his father’s values: good business sense married to humility.
Avedon, who had allegedly cut out his favorite images from Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar as a boy, decided to show his portfolio to Harper’s then art director, Alexey Brodovitch. Avedon began to attend Brodovitch’s “Design Laboratory” classes at the New School for Social Research in Manhattan, where Brodovitch propounded the idea that commerce and art could and did have a productive relationship. Avedon found in Brodovitch a severe character, “much like my father,” under whose influence he could thrive. It was in November 1944 that Avedon’s first fashion photos appeared in Harper’s, in the “Junior Bazaar” section. As Avedon began to develop a style of his own, he deployed variable focus, blur and poses suggestive of verve and energy, drawing heavily on the example of the Hungarian émigré Martin Munkácsi, the hallmarks of whose fashion work were movement and outdoor settings. At the age of twenty-five Avedon was identified by U.S. Camera magazine as “the most controversial figure in photography.”
Excerpted from Lives of the Great Photographers by Juliet Hacking
Copyright © 2015 Juliet Hacking. All rights reserved.
Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc., www.ThamesAndHudsonUSA.com