In July of 1965, Richard Avedon was in Paris shooting the fall collections for Harper’s Bazaar. The magazine’s editor-in-chief, creative director, and fashion editor had flown in for the all-important shoots, and Avedon’s temporary studio was open around the clock, humming with models, stylists, and assistants.
It was a heady but high-stress time, as big egos rubbed up against tight deadlines. So everyone was caught off-guard when Avedon’s longtime studio manager, at the brink of absolute exhaustion, abruptly retired. That’s when the world’s most celebrated fashion photographer turned to Gideon Lewin, a young assistant who’d been with Avedon for less than a year, and said, “Gideon, you are taking over.” And that, as Lewin recalls in Avedon: Behind the Scenes 1964 -1980, is the moment he “began a long career lighting the world’s most beautiful and interesting people.”
That is no exaggeration. During Lewin’s 16 years at Avedon’s side, he would collaborate on shoots featuring Sophia Loren, Anjelica Huston, Samuel Beckett, Andy Warhol, Lauren Hutton, Audrey Hepburn, Rudolf Nureyev, Rene Russo, Barbra Streisand, and Bob Dylan, among countless others. He would also make master prints, build sets, thaw frozen camera equipment, and trouble-shoot anything and everything needed to turn Avedon’s creative vision into perfect pictures.
Lewin was clearly an excellent studio manager, but he is also a gifted photographer and, fortunately, he had his camera with him throughout those storied years. The artful black-and-white photographs in Lewin’s visually driven memoir highlight some of Avedon’s most important shoots, museum openings, and other milestones from the point of view of someone with the ultimate backstage pass.
Now 80, Lewin made more than 4,000 of his own photographs during his years with Avedon, some of which hang in the white-walled workspace he shares with his wife, noted fashion designer Joanna Mastroianni (and a yippy Pomeranian) that overlooks New York’s garment district. Did he realize he was documenting photographic history with all of these behind-the-scenes shots? “It’s funny,” Lewin says, quickly surveying the pictures on the wall, “I never thought of that at the time. I captured moments because I saw something interesting, something beautiful.”
For Avedon aficionados, it’s fascinating to see an alternate view of his iconic photographs. When Team Avedon traveled to Japan’s snow country in 1966 for the now-famous shoot with Verushka, Lewin took quietly poetic photos, including one of a group of sumo wrestlers from which Avedon would eventually select Verushka’s statuesque partner. There’s also a picture of Verushka and the chosen sumo standing close together, as snowflakes flutter past Lewin’s lens.
Some of the pictures in the Behind the Scenes reveal Lewin’s sense of humor—Avedon carefully inspecting the tan lines on the backsides of a couple of nude male models, for instance—but there are more emotionally complex frames as well. Chief among those is Lewin’s riveting picture of a young Avedon sitting in his studio, surrounded by his own work, his tie loose around his neck. (“It’s my first portrait of him,” Lewin says, nodding to the framed picture leaning on a ledge in his studio. “I took that only three months after I started.”) In a beautiful yet wrenching image, Lewin has Avedon stand in front of what may have been his most personally important work, a portrait Avedon made of his father not long before the elder Avedon’s death.
The book’s large format (10. 5 by 13.5 inches) and breathable design are easy on the eyes, while Lewin’s breezy anecdotes expose everything from how Avedon nailed particular shots to tricky moments with the talent. (Once, frustrated with Raquel Welch’s demanding behavior on the set during a 1974 shoot for Vogue in Cabo San Lucas, Avedon snapped, “Why don’t you take your own pictures!”)
For industry insiders interested in how the artisanal sausage gets made, some of the most compelling passages describe Lewin’s methods for solving the unwieldy problems Avedon threw at him. On a shoot in Paris, for instance, Lewin was tasked with getting a full-size tree into the studio on a few day’s notice. (He pulled it off.) For a museum exhibition, Lewin had to make a print that was 10 feet high and 35 feet long—doable now, but this was in 1975, nearly a decade before the debut of the Macintosh computer.
Lewin says that his book “was written to educate a new generation, the people who grew up in the age of digital solutions, the Internet, and instant communication.” If for no other reason than revealing Lewin’s old-school, never-say-never approach to problem solving, the book should be required reading for anyone considering assisting a photographer. At the same, for those who grew up with film negatives and magazine spreads, it’s a warm reminder of more tactile times.
But while the book shares both the studio’s methods and madness, its top notes convey just how much trust Avedon had in Lewin, allowing his camera to find such intimate scenes of the master at work. Lewin also details the perfect silent dance he and Avedon did while Lewin lit the photographers’ subjects, with Lewin wordlessly anticipating Avedon’s movements and camera clicks.
While paging through the book and reading the stories behind famous pictures, something might strike you: Lewin was frequently the very first person to see Avedon’s most important photographs appear from the chemical bath, the first to see them on paper. “If you closed your eyes when his flash went off, you actually got the image. It stays in your brain,” Lewin says. “So I had it from beginning to end because Dick allowed me to interpret the negative. You can only do that when you have a very good relationship with the photographer.”
By Bill Shapiro
Bill Shapiro is the former editor-in-chief of LIFE magazine and the author of “What We Keep.”
Avedon: Behind the Scenes 1964 -1980
Trim Size: 10×13.3
Page Count: 232