Photographer Richard Avedon dies

His fashion shots in the '50s helped redefine the genre as an art form


October 02, 2004|By Glenn McNatt | Glenn McNatt,SUN ART CRITIC

Richard Avedon, the New York photographer whose signature pictures of glamorous models romping in high couture clothing revolutionized the fashion industry and helped set American style for more than five decades, died yesterday. He was 81.

Avedon, who during his long career worked for such trendy magazines as Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and The New Yorker, died at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio, Texas, after suffering a brain hemorrhage last month while on assignment.

He had been working on a project for The New Yorker called "On Democracy," which had taken him around the country for several months shooting politicians, delegates and ordinary people along the campaign trail. New Yorker editor David Remnick said he hoped to publish the project before Election Day, Nov. 2.

In addition to his fashion work, Avedon was celebrated for his stark, black-and-white portraits of celebrities and political figures, whose faces he rendered with an unflinching realism that hinted at the ordinary human reality behind the public facade.

His photographs of entertainers such as Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan and Marian Anderson became icons of the era.

"Avedon was able to capture people's greatness by showing their vulnerabilities," said Darsie Alexander, a curator in the prints, drawings and photography department at the Baltimore Museum of Art.

"People think about the slick surfaces of his fashion photographs but Avedon was really all about substance," Alexander noted. "His work had to do with showing that beauty is about flaws and vulnerabilities. The greatest people are the ones who are able to show both their strength and their weakness, and Avedon was able to combine those two things to make extraordinary pictures of people."

In An Autobiography, Richard Avedon (1993), Avedon once described what he saw in many of the famous faces he photographed: "People - running from unhappiness, hiding in power - are locked within their reputations, ambitions, beliefs."

By contrast, Avedon's exuberant fashion shots helped redefine the genre as an art form in the 1950s, when he liberated his models and their frothy garments by setting them in motion - jumping, leaping or striding toward the viewer with confident purposefulness.

His approach contrasted sharply with the static, rigid, art deco-style tableaux of earlier masters such as Edward Steichen, Cecil Beaton and Baron Adolphe De Meyer, whose work looked painfully old-fashioned in comparison with Avedon's joyful, up-to-the minute confections.

Avedon's Dovima with Elephants from 1955, for example, showed a slinky model in a black Dior dress standing languidly amid enormous circus elephants, who seemed to be trumpeting her beauty as she gestured imperiously in their direction. The picture became an instant classic and helped spawn a legion of Avedon imitators.

In the early 1970s, Avedon produced a series of haunting, brutally frank black-and-white portraits of his father, Jacob Israel Avedon, who was dying of cancer at the time. The photographs were later exhibited at New York's Museum of Modern Art and helped solidify Avedon's reputation as a major American artist as well as one of the country's most successful commercial photographers.

For another project, In the American West, Avedon traveled thousands of miles photographing ordinary people such as rodeo hands, waitresses, gas station attendants and even a beekeeper, whom the photographer depicted standing naked from the waist up, his exposed flesh covered with the tiny insects.

The project sparked controversy because of its deliberate rejection of the heroic image of the West projected in movies and popular novels, but Avedon insisted on its truthfulness as a documentary record of contemporary American life.

"His work had such international currency it made him the kind of photographer who became part of our culture," said Katherine Ware, a curator of photography at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. "His photographs helped shape everybody's visual vocabulary."

Avedon was born in New York City in 1923, the son of a Fifth Avenue dress shop owner. He dropped out of high school at 17 to run errands for a photographic company, then joined the U.S. merchant marine in 1942.

After the war, Avedon worked as a photographer for the Bonwit Teller department stores before taking a job at Harper's Bazaar, where he worked from 1945 to 1965. In 1966, he moved to Vogue, where he remained until 1990. In 1992, he became the first staff photographer for The New Yorker.

Wire reports contributed to this article.

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