Richard Avedon is one of the most famous portrait photographers in history. Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, LIFE and Look…his unmistakable style floods fashion publications. In his New York studio, time stands still. Face frozen in a sophisticated pose. Who’s more focused, the photographer or the model? In a split second, the blinding flash captures this epiphany. The photo is a success, and we pack up. Then, away from the camera, the features shed their artificiality. Life begins again.
Richard Avedon has always preferred studio work. “It isolates people from their environment. In a sense they become…symbols of themselves,” he wrote. The white background of his studio is akin to the first blank page of a notebook that one would blacken before consciously abandoning it, eternally unfinished. For although Avedon accurately photographs the icons of his time, he only captures the surface. And so much the better. He perceives the beauty before him, magnifies it and fixes it masterfully. His eye is both witness to and creator of the icons before him.
Among the abundance of his photographic output, one portrait stands out. A photograph in which he finally seems to have penetrated the surface of his subject. One of the most striking images of his career: his 1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe. It’s not the usual set-up, the flashes giving way to a softer, more intimate light. Marilyn can give way to Norma Jane, her shoulders slumped and her gaze floating in the void. Richard Avedon knows this photo is unique. It’s as if the camera, through the distance it imposes between the two individuals, had this unusual power to break the fourth wall. He wrote: “Photos have a reality for me that people don’t have. It is through photographs that I know them.”
In his preface to the book Avedon 100, published to mark the centenary of the iconic photographer’s birth, Larry Gagosian writes: “Each of Avedon’s photographs is not only a portrait of a person, but also of an idea.” In the end, all it takes is one idea to make history. A crazy idea, like the one Avedon implemented in 1955, while working for the famous Harper’s Bazaar magazine. Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar, asked the photographer to accompany her on a series of images for a report on Paris and Parisian fashion. In the heart of Paris’s Cirque d’Hiver, he photographed Dovima, one of the highest-paid models in the industry at the time. She poses in a black Dior evening gown, surrounded by two elephants. Elegant and dramatic, this image remains one of the most iconic fashion photographs of all time.
Iconic Avedon, A Centennial Celebration of Richard Avedon. January 22 – March 2, 2024. Gagosian Gallery, rue de Ponthieu, Paris.