Throughout the 1950s and 60s, the definition of chic fashion, and with that fashion photography, was constantly changing at a frantic pace. Different photographers attempted to capture the American beauty in all her glory, but many of them resorted to clichés and traditional methods. One young photographer however attempted to change all that and brought in a whole new level of creativity and vision to fashion photography. He was Richard Avedon, and for over fifty years, his dynamic and expressive photography influenced every magazine and editorial publication in the US and the rest of the world.
Avedon started out as a freelance photographer but was later picked up by Harper's Bazaar, becoming the chief photographer at the magazine. Inspired by photographer Martin Munkacsi who combined photojournalism with fashion photography, Avedon took his models out on the streets, giving his photography a certain energy lacking in the four corners of his studio.
This was a step forward from the works of Edward Steichen and Cecil Beaton who primarily worked in the controlled environment of the photo studio. In fashion photography's infancy, designers and photographers worked to create a distinctive setting inside a confined space. With Avedon's work however, he sought to bring the photos alive through the vibrant and sometimes uncontrollable nature of the outside.
Even with his studio work, Avedon sought to create something new and inspired in his photography. He would capture his models in a whole variety of expressions and poses; laughing, frowning, dancing and even jumping, his fashion photography leaned towards charming out the life in his subjects.
That kind of out-of-the-box imagination certainly paid off dividends as one of his photographs, Dovima with elephants (the first image in this post), fetched a price of $1.151 million at an auction last year, making it one of the most expensive photographs in the world.
Avedon's talent for striking photographs also extended to his portraiture work. From time to time, he would be commissioned to take the portraits of celebrities and politicians on assignment or as part of his own personal projects. In many of his portraiture works, he would use a plain white or grey background, allowing the viewer to focus squarely on the subject.
Among his notable portrait works is his series on The Kennedy Family which he did for Harper's Bazaar. The resulting photographs framed the famous family in a simple, somber and sometimes intimate manner, something rarely seen during that time. His most famous portrait series centered on the ordinary people of the western United States; Avedon spent more than five years photographing cowboys, drifters and gamblers and the resulting portraits were collected in the highly praised book In the American West.
Of course, as with any high profile photographer, Avedon's works weren't always without controversy. Take for example the double portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor below. Avedon recounts that in order to capture the couple in their now famous grimace, he told a lie about running over a dog in his taxi on his way over to the photo shoot. The Royal couple, both dog lovers, expressed their shock at his story and that's when Avedon clicked the shutter.
The photographer would become infamous for many other unflattering portraits, but he would defend his works saying that he wanted to capture the true character, or at least a different angle on his subjects, many of whom were artists and celebrities.
Avedon wasn't just a photographer; he was a restless artist who continuously sought to reinvent the medium. Even in his seventies and up to his death in 2004, he continued to work on many projects. His last one was to be on the presidential election at that time.
More of Richard Avedon's works can be found over at his official website. Among the many books available on his photography, Avedon Fashion 1944-2000 is a good collection of his editorial works. Many of his now famous portraits can be found in Performance: Richard Avedon. His seminal work documenting the American beauty of the west is collected in Avedon at Work: In the American West.