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Richard Avedon, the famed fashion photographer, greatly influenced the world of fashion, photography and art throughout the 40 years of his career (Weiley 86). He set the standards f or fashion in his work with Harper's Bazaar and Vogue from the early 1940's up to today. One may remember his "talking heads" commercials for Calvin Klein Jeans, or his "Euro-Swank" advertisements for Obsession perfume (Ansen 48) . One of his more recent projects, In the American West, was also widely publicized and highly criticized. He is best known for his unique and strikingly truthful portraits of people in front of an ever-present white background. Now in his early 70's, A vedon continues to make his mark on society.

What has made Avedon so successful? Avedon obviously has a natural born talent, but it is the freshness of his style and his technique that has placed him above the rest.

He began to d evelop these aspects as a child. A decedent of Russian Jewish immigrants, Avedon grew up in Cedarhurst, Long Island, and New York City. His family was fashion oriented with Avedon's father owning a small women's clothing store, "Avedon's Fifth Avenue." In addition, his mother loved the arts and wanted Avedon to become an artist (Ansen 54). As he grew he started to appreciate several aspects of his future career. "From the time he began photographing his sister, Louise, when he was nine or so, Avedo n has been charmed by women..."(Owen 78). He also did well as a poet during his high school years at De Witt Clinton High School, though he later dropped out. He enjoyed the works of Martin Munkacsi, the famous Hungarian photographer. Munkacsi's pictu res of models running in nature increased Avedon's interest in fashion photography (Owen 49). Said Avedon, "It was always the portraiture that interested me" (James 106). His interests soon came to fruition.

Whether it was by ironic chance or destiny, he joined the merchant marine, to work as a photographer, taking mug shots of the new enlistees (Owen 49). It wasn't exactly the best place to learn portraiture, but Avedon continually increased his experience and his passion for photography. He learned to love the "emotional geography of the face" (Ansen 56).

These events influenced his style and technique but they were not the only things to make their mark on the budding photographer. Said Avedon, "The main influences on me we re not visual, they were literary. I read a great deal...I'm so interested in the behavior and manners, and the rising and falling within the social structure" (James 105). Thus, perhaps Avedon is not so much "a frustrated painter," as many photographer s tend to be, but an "unfulfilled poet" searching for a medium that could best communicated his thoughts and emotions (Owen 79).

After returning to New York, Avedon followed his dream of working for Harper's Bazaar (Ansen 56). There he refined his style and technique and began to gain respect. He was "referred to by fashion insiders as the leading practitioner of a 'New American Vision.'" His works continued to attract attention. Later, in 1975, a large collection of Avedon's portraits wer e to be the first photographs exhibited in the famous Marlborough Gallery of New York (Owen 52, 62).

Avedon now has several books published and is referred to by American Photo magazine as "America's Master Photographer." Several wealthy fans ev en paid $100,000 for Avedon to photograph their family (the money was donated to the American Foundation for Aids) (Chua-Eoan 104).

The freshness of Avedon's style was like a door into a new room of creative photographic ideas. For one, "Avedo n used the 'look' of reality to liberate his models from their stationary poses" (Owen 52). They were similar to the works of Munkacsi that he loved so much as a child. Avedon concentrated on "movement and natural settings." "They [models] leaped off cur bs or bounced down a the supporting cast of real people: bicycle reacers, passersby, bistro regulars, casino gamblers. He became a master at capturing gesture and expression" (Weiley 86). "His famous image 'Dovima With Elephants,' taken at Pa ris's Cirque d' Hiver, is one obvious example of the way Avedon repeatedly shook up standard expectations" (Owen 56). His ideas were new and exciting. It was unheard of for a beautiful model to pose next to elephants.

Then he changed. He began to take the type of reality photographs that most photographers [especially fashion photographers] of that time would never have taken. It an was anti-fashion movement. "Avedon showed every wrinkle and bump in fine detail, an d many of his sitters did not look at all happy" (Owen 52, 62). Many of his earlier subjects were celebrities but this did not stop him. He proved as "truthful" with them as with any.

The change kept him on the cutting edge, even thought he had seemingly rejected his first love: fashion.

Avedon continued this style with "In The American West" which was widely criticized. "The style--frontal, direct, with a single subject centered, staring directly out at t he viewer-was confrontational. No background intruded or distracted the eye from the central icon" (Weiley 87). This was quite different from his earlier shots with living backgrounds and spirited subjects. This set up was passable with most critics. It was the subjects themselves that brought on the complaints. Max Kozloff, a writer for the magazine 'Art in America' says, "He [Avedon] wants to portray the whole American West as a blighted culture that spews out causalities by the bucket: misfits, dr ifters, degenerates, crackups and prisoners-entrapped either literally or by debasing work." "It is one thing to portray high-status celebrities as picture fodder; it is quite another to mete out the same punishment to waitresses, ex-prizefighters, and da y laborers" (91, 94).

Many art critiques did not recognize Avedon's work as art. Said Kozloff, "For all their harshness, Avedon's portraits belong to the commercial order of seeing, not the artistic" (97).

The project In the American West might seem a bit morbid and maybe not all-together truthful to the whole American West. Obviously, it would be impossible to truthfully capture the West in its entirety anyway. Avedon himself says, "This is a fictional We st" (Weiley 91). Perhaps the project was wrongly named. It does, however, have a very worthy product. Douglas Davis, a writer for Newsweek magazine says, "It documents not the West, not the worker, but himself [Avedon], and his own determined, exhilara ting pursuit of the perfect photographic style" (83). But this is what art is about. Artist communicate their emotions and thoughts through their work. How is it then wrong when the same thing occurs in photography. Perhaps the project should have bee n called, A Bunch of Awsome Pictures of Weird People in Western America (Perhaps not). Maybe that would tame the critiques.

Even after the onslaught of critics though, Avedon's work still retains an impressive, uncommon quality that grips our attention. He has a "love of surreal visual conjunctions," a "predilection for negative white space." and a "cinematic approach to still photography" (Owen 56).

Susan Weiley, a writer for Artnews magazine, states in a well written piece, that Avedon's style is so intimidating by it's perfection that "one is left with an emptiness" (91). A more positive and truthful description would be by Roland Barthes: "no certain adjective is left of the represented body [in the portrait]" (Ansen 53). Wh ich means that Avedon's pictures are worth a thousand words. Every aspect of the subject Avedon wishes to communicate is successfully communicated. His style is very effective and has stood the test of time.

Avedon's technique has also helped him achieve his respectable status. "what raises Avedon above so many others is a flaring energy--an unslakable, sometimes unseemly lust--that has driven him throughout his career always to seem more and to know more" (Owen 79).

There are sever al specific techniques that set him apart from other photographers. Avedon uses an eight-by-ten view camera and a wooden tripod (Lacayo 93) However, "film and equipment are the furthest thing from Avedon's mind during the shoot" (Owen 82). Sometimes he makes a rough outline of a picture idea in pencil or pen even before he sees the subject (James 105). He often mirrors the position of the subject, usually subconsciously, to get the feel of it (Owen 82). "Somehow, he transmits that energy and desire to everything and everyone he photographs...The intensity of his attention might seem only a flatterer's ploy, but its a quality that Avedon can't turn off even if he wants to" (Owen 79).

Avedon describes his work like this. Once the picture is ta ken, it changes from a fact to an opinion. "All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth" (Kozloff 91).

However, his developing process is not always as accurate as his philosophy. His negatives are dense because he pays no attentio n to the recommended development times. Also, Avedon doesn't print his own work. It is not surprising because his prints are huge; sometimes eight by ten feet in size. He is very involved, though, in the process and they do about a print a day (Owen 82 , 83).

Avedon's natural talent along with the freshness of his style and technique have made him who he is. "Avedon has continued to reproduce images that shock and alarm, connecting on the morality, aesthetics, and values of the culture in wh ich they are made and acclaimed" (Owen 76). This is what has kept him successful.


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