Richard Avedon

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Sunny and Renee in Balmain evening gowns, Casino Le Touquet, August 1954.

Richard Avedon captured many of the most iconic people and events of the twentieth century during his 50-year career as a photographer. Beyond that, he set a new standard by bringing life and movement to fashion photographs in the 1950s. He redefined the role of photography in fashion and reportage through his gritty reflective portraits and creative, well-timed snaps. Even though he created fanciful images, he sought to bring out the real emotion and personalities in his subjects. He was known for discovering modeling talent like Jean Shrimpton in the ‘60s and Stephanie Seymour in the ‘90s. China Machado was his muse. He described her as “probably one of the most beautiful women in the world.” Which means a great deal coming from someone who has photographed the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Verushka and many more. Avedon was even the inspiration for Fred Astaire’s character Dick Avery in the 1957 film Funny Face. He spent about 20 years at Harper’s Bazaar, 24 years at Vogue and was hired on as the first staff photographer of The New Yorker in 1992, when he was 69 years old. Avedon died of a cerebral hemorrhage in 2004 while on assignment for the New Yorker. He was one of the most prolific photographers and has been quoted saying “My portraits are more about me than the people I photograph.” This essay by Avedon on photographing then Secretary of State, Henry Kissinger in 1976, provides a window into the life of one of the most prolific photographers in history. It also perfectly articulates a philosophy on photography’s role in life and in art.


(Essay via The Richard Avedon Foundation)

"I once went to Washington for what they call a “photo opportunity” with Henry Kissinger. As I led him to the camera, he said a puzzling thing. He said, “Be kind to me.” I wish there had been time to ask him exactly what he meant, although it’s probably clear. Now, Kissinger knows a lot about manipulation, so to hear his concern about being manipulated really made me think. What did he mean? What does it really mean to “be kind” in a photograph? Did Kissinger want to look wiser, warmer, more sincere than he suspected he was? Do photographic portraits have different responsibilities to the sitter than portraits in paint or prose? Isn’t it trivializing and demeaning to make someone look wise, noble (which is easy to do), or even conventionally beautiful when the thing itself is so much more complicated, contradictory, and therefore fascinating? Was he hoping that the photograph would reveal a perfect surface? Or is it just possible that he could have wished – as I would have if I were being photographed – that “being kind” would involve allowing something more complicated about me to burn through: my anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, my isolation. If all these things are aspects of character, would I not, as an artist, be unkind to treat Kissinger as a merely noble face? Does the perfect surface have anything to do with the artistic integrity of a portrait?

A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. The way someone who’s being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer’s response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about. The philosopher Roland Barthes once said a very wise thing about photography. He said, “Photography is a captive of two intolerable alibis. On the one hand, ‘ennobled art pictures.’ On the other hand, ‘reportage’ which derives its prestige from the object. Neither conception is entirely correct.” He said, “Photography is a Text, a complex meditation on meaning.”

What Barthes recognized is that we need a new vocabulary to talk about photography. Not “art” versus “reality,” “artifice” versus “candor,” “subjective” versus “objective” – photography falls in between these classifications, and that’s why it’s so impossible to answer questions like “Is photography really art?” and “Is this an accurate picture of your friend?” As I have said on other occasions, “All photographs are accurate. None is the truth.”

I don’t think pictures have to justify their existence by calling themselves works of art or photographic portraits. They are memories of a man; they are contradictory facets of an instant of his life as a subject – and of our lives as viewers. They are, as Barthes said, texts, and as such they exist to be read, interpreted, and argued over – not categorized and judged.

So who is Henry Kissinger? And what, or who, is this photograph? Is it just a shadow representation of a man? Or is it closer to a doppelgänger, a likeness with its own life, an inexact twin whose afterlife may overcome and replace the original?

When I see my pictures in a museum and watch the way people look at my pictures, and then turn to the pictures myself and see how alive the images are, they seem to have little to do with me. They have a life of their own. Like the actors in Pirandello, or in Woody Allen’s movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, when the actors leave the screen and join the audience. They have confrontations with the viewers Photography is completely different from every other form of art. I don’t really remember the day when I stood behind my camera with Henry Kissinger on the other side. I’m sure he doesn’t remember it either. But this photograph is here now to prove that no amount of kindness on my part could make this photograph mean exactly what he – or even I – wanted it to mean. It’s a reminder of the wonder and terror that is a photograph."


(All images copyright the Richard Avedon Foundation)


(L) Dovima in Balenciaga, Spring 1947. (R) Renée, The New Look of Dior, Place de la Concorde, Paris, August 1947.


(L) Diana Vreeland and model, Harper's Bazaar, 1946. (R) Harper's Bazaar, 1946.


(L) Elise Daniels Turban by Paulette, Pré-Catelan, Paris, August 1948. (R) Shoe by Perugia Place du Trocadéro, Paris, August 1948.


(L) Vanity Fair, 1953. (R) Marilyn with Richard Avedon taken in Avedon's studio, 1954.


"Domiva With Elephants," Paris for Harper's Bazaar, 1955. (Dior Dress)


(L) Dovima with Elephants Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955. (R) Dovima in Givenchy, Paris, 1955.


Dovima, 1956.


(L) Suzy Parker in Dior,  Paris studio, 1956. (R) Avedon photograph Marilyn Monroe in New York and  captures a rare glimpse of Norma Jean, 1957.


(L) Carmen Dell Orefice, coat by Cardin, Paris, August 1957. (R) Coco Chanel, Paris, 1958.


(L) Dovima and Betsy Pickering dresses by Lanvin, Paris studio, August 1958. (R) Balenciaga, Vogue, 1958.


Elsa Maxwell at the Waldorf Towers, 1957.


(L) Audrey Hepburn, 1959. (R) China Machado in Dior’s (by Yves Saint Laurent), Paris, 1959.


(L) The Kennedys, 1961. (R) Marella Agnelli, 1961.


(L) Audrey Hepburn in Yves Saint Laurent, Paris, July 1962. (R) Richard Avedon, Self Portrait, New York, 1963.


“The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, DAR Convention, Mayflower Hotel, Washington, DC, October 15, 1963.


(L) Elizabeth Taylor, 1964. (R) Jean Shrimpton, Harper’s Bazaar, October, 1965.


(L) Bob Dylan, Central Park, New York, February 10, 1965. (R) Jean Shrimpton in Harper’s Bazaar, April, 1965.


(L) Barbra Streisand, New York, October 1, 1965. (R) Maya Plisetskaya, New York, May 1966.


Audrey Hepburn New York, January 1967.


(L) Jean Shrimpton, dress by Galitzine, hair by Alexandre, Paris studio, August 1965. (R) "The Shrimp at Sea," with Jean Shrimpton for US Vogue January 1967.


Veruschka in Japan, Editor: Diana Vreeland, American Vogue, October 15th 1966.


Veruschka in Japan, Editor: Diana Vreeland, American Vogue, October 15th 1966.


Veruschka in Japan, Editor: Diana Vreeland, American Vogue, October 15th 1966.


(L) Mia Farrow, Vogue, 1966. (R) Audrey Hepburn, Avedon's Studio, New York, 1967.


Twiggy, Vogue, Aug 1967.


Veruschka, Vogue US, March 1967.


Veruschka, 1967.



(L) Lauren Hutton, 1968. (R) Penelope Tree Dress by Cardin, Paris, January 1968.


(L) Twiggy, 1968. (R) Andy Warhol shows his scars after he was shot on June 3, 1968.


(L) Cher, Vogue, November 1969. (R) Janis Joplin, Port Arthur Texas, 1969.


Andy Warhol and members of The Factory- Gerard Malanga, poet; Viva, actress; Paul Morrissey, director; Taylor Mead, actor; Brigid Polk, actress; Joe Dallesandro, actor; Andy Warhol, artist, New York, October 9, 1969.


Veruschka, 1972.


From "The Family" Series. (L) Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State, Washington, D.C., June 2, 1976. (R) Ronald Reagan, former Governor of California, Orlando, Florida, March 4, 1976.


(L) Angelica Huston, 1976. (R) Naomi Campbell & Stephanie Seymour, Versace S/S, 1993.


(L) Rene Russo With Kim Alexis with Dante and Leo, Milan, March 1981. (R) Kate Moss & Aya ThorGren for Versace S/S, 1993.


(L) Stephanie Seymour & Marcus Schenkenberg for Gianni Versace, Vogue Italy, July 1993. (R) Stephanie Seymour, 1994.


Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent, June 14 1981.


Kate Moss for Versace, 1996.


Kate Moss for Versace, 1996.



Kate Moss for Versace, 1996.


Kate Moss for Calvin Klein, 1997.

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