There are few photographers whose names conjure quite the level of glamour and intrigue as Richard Avedon still does, even decades after his death. In a new book, “What Becomes a Legend Most” (a title taken from a tagline of one of Avedon’s commercial campaigns) author Philip Gefter tackles the life and times of one of the 20th century’s most prolific and revered photographers, charting his humble backgrounds and subsequent rise to bourgeoise Manhattan society.
And while the tales of Avedon’s numerous celebrity photo sessions are fun, Gefter asserts that it would be reductive to dismiss Avedon as a celebrity portraitist. Though many today remember Avedon for his works capturing an uncharacteristically melancholic Marilyn Monroe, a furtive Andy Warhol, or an electric Brigitte Bardot, he sought to document America and all its people, not just the glitterati.
His portraits were certainly unique. While contemporaries like Irving Penn also took black-and-whites, Avedon had a singular way of capturing his subjects, brilliantly lit and often with emotion. “With so elemental a palette, Avedon would later transform the genre of portraiture, not only stripping the picture frame to nothing but the subject, but also rendering the individual with exacting clarity as both generic as a breed and yet unique as any individual can be,” Gefter writes. One of his most ambitious projects was his In the American West series, photographing drifters, miners, ranchers and teenagers, all of which were exhibited in life-size large format. Gefter presents this series as an example of Avedon’s quest as an image-maker: to capture humanity as it is, no more, no less. His camera, Gefter writes, “provides a stunning document of our sameness as it scrutinizes to forensic exactitude the distinctions that make each of us unique.”
Of course, no biography is complete without a deep dive into a subject’s personal life. Much has been speculated (and contested) about Avedon’s private life: though he was married twice and fathered a son, John, a 2017 biography, Avedon: Something Personal which claimed that Avedon was bisexual, was immediately slammed by the Avedon Foundation, which called much of the material “outright inventions”. While Gefter makes similar claims about Avedon’s sexuality, he also avoids falling into a salacious trap by showing that Avedon felt deep love and admiration for the women in his life, too, regardless of his relationships with men. Gefter first quotes a 1958 profile from the New Yorker that suggested Avedon’s relationship with his first wife Doe Avedon had been strictly platonic, but quickly follows it with a quote from one of Doe’s children, Nowell Siegel: “[Richard] and my mom were deeply in love, and they were deeply close. If it wasn’t sexual, though, it was a friendship kind of closeness.”
Ultimately, Gefter’s laser focus is on the work itself, the stories behind the numerous photo shoots, and searching for an understanding of Avedon’s artistic mindset. “His portraiture was in service of a noble ambition to declare proof of our existential condition as human beings,” writes Gefter, “a species with the ability to annihilate itself.”
By Christina Cacouris
Christina Cacouris is a writer and curator based in Paris and New York.
What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon, by Philip Gefter
Published by Harper Collins
Book available here.