Fashion & passion

Fashion & passion

Fashion & passion

Richard Avedon, who captured the conflicting identities of America, believed that all photographs are accurate; none of them is the truth, recalls Giridhar Khasnis

“To know Dick Avedon was to know the Sun,” wrote Adam Gopnik (The New Yorker/ October 11, 2004). “He radiated out, early and daily, on a circle of friends and family and colleagues, who drew on his light and warmth for sustenance. When he died, last week, at the age of 81, some light seemed to go out in many lives and around many pleasures.”

Gopnik went on to recall how Avedon’s definitive portraits of the powerful and the powerless were almost without equal in the history of portraiture. “His best-known photographs, from the Parisienne leaping over a puddle in high heels to his dying father’s desperate face, all share a belief in the heroism of self-assertion, a belief that every leap is a leap of faith. As long as people remain curious about life in the twentieth century, they will turn to Avedon’s photographs to see how it looked, and what it meant.”

Born to parents of Russian-Jewish heritage in New York City, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) held his first camera when he was just 13. He rose to become a pre-eminent fashion photographer, producing sensational pictures in the 1950s and thereafter. Even as he made his name in fashion, he set out to capture the conflicting identities of America. His exemplary photographic career that stretched for full sixty years followed both streams — fashion and portraiture — in equal measure.

His pictures that were published in Harper’s Bazaar (1945-65) and subsequently in Vogue revolutionised fashion photography. He brought in fresh energy, movement and theatrical surprise to fashion pictures by developing an original style. In his iconic images, he presented his models not as stiffly dressed and rigidly posed beauties, but as lively and exuberant actors.

He poured his own nervous energy into his images, coaxing and controlling his subjects. And often dancing along with his models. “Real people move, they bear with them the element of time,” he said. “It is this fourth dimension of people that I try to capture in a photograph.”

Besides streets and nightclubs, Avedon made his models to pose in such unlikely locales as zoos and circuses, where he made them to laugh, dance, jump and have fun. He also took his models out on the beach, photographed them barefoot, without gloves, running along the beach on stilts, playing leapfrog and other games. “Those candid snapshots were in direct contrast to what was being done,” he revealed in a later interview. “I came in at a time when there weren’t any young photographers working in a free way. Everyone was tired, the war was over, and suddenly everything was fun. It was historically a marvelous moment for a fashion photographer to be in. I think if I were starting today, it would be much harder.”

One of his favourite models, Suzy Parker, summed it up when she said Avedon was the most wonderful man in the business, because he realised “that models are not just coat-hangers.”

Face to face

Though Avedon initially gained fame through his fashion and advertising photography, he never abandoned an interest in human portraiture that began in childhood. His unique portrait pictures included painters, politicians, artists, workers, pop icons, models, musicians, writers, political activists, soldiers, Vietnam War victims, mental patients, murderers, vagrants and many famous and infamous people. Irrespective of their status and standing, they were all asked to stand in front of a seamless white backdrop and look directly at the camera; the resultant pictures showed them not as idealised icons but ruthless, unsettling and unflattering subjects.

In his minimalist but intense and probing pictures, Avedon uncannily captured the folds of skin, wrinkles and moles, along with every stitch, hair and pore of the sitters. He confessed that paradox, irony, contradiction motivated him in a photograph.

“Contradictions within one person: the contrast possibly between the gentleness and the delicacy of the hands of a subject and the suspicion and the lack of trust on his face.”

Avedon’s pictures received widespread admiration. He was named one of the world’s 10 finest photographers by Popular Photography magazine as early as in 1958; he was hailed as ‘the world’s most famous photographer’ by The New York Times in 2002.

Widely published and exhibited, his pictures became popular with critics and collectors. In an auction conducted in Paris in November 2010, one of his photographs featuring model Dovima with two circus elephants sold for a jaw-dropping $1.2 million.

Literary theorist, philosopher and critic, Roland Barthes observed that Avedon’s work provided seven gifts: the truth, character, vocation, beauty, death, past and promise of the subject.

Avedon’s stark, black-and-white and almost confrontational pictures of famous, infamous and common people against blank backgrounds became so popular that Hank Stueve of Washington Post exclaimed, “An Avedon portrait brought an instant aura of importance and legitimacy to its subject... If Avedon was taking your portrait, then you’d arrived. Even if you milked cows for a living.”

Energetic artiste

Avedon also had his share of detractors. His fashion photographs were dismissed by some critics as contrived, while his portraits were seen as needlessly grim, and lacking in artistic appeal. There were also people who felt his fashion photography never related to his portrait pictures.

Avedon conceded that there had always been a separation between fashion and what he called his deeper work. “Fashion is where I make my living. I’m not knocking it; it’s a pleasure to make a living that way. Then there’s the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits. Fashion is a necessary part of my commercial existence. It underwrites and supports my life and other work that I prefer to do.”

An energetic man who produced a number of books, a committed political liberal and a strong supporter of civil rights, Avedon remained active till his last. “If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it is as though I’ve neglected essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.” And in spite of achieving great acclaim, he was modest enough to admit: “I never felt that anything I ever did was good enough and frankly, a large part of me still thinks exactly that way about everything I do — it is not good enough — nothing is ever even near good enough.”

Avedon expressed his views on photography candidly. “There is no truth in photography,” he famously declared. “There is no truth about anyone’s person. My portraits are much more about me than they are about the people I photograph.” In another revealing submission, he asserted: “You cannot take a photograph of a person without that person’s presence, and that very person’s presence implies truth. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

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