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Essay: The Captivating Portraits of Richard Avedon: A Unique Perspective on Personality

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  • Published: 1 February 2018*
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Paste your essay in here…“Richard Avedon stood out for his ability to capture the unique personality in each of his subjects.” (Art History) Avedon worked as a photographer for magazines including Harper’s Bazaar; despite working for bland commercial magazines at the time he managed to create a series of stunning photographs of men and women that made the individual unique.

Richard Avedon was born in New York City to a Jewish-Russian family. He came to his calling very early in life both in terms of photography as his medium and portraiture as his major genre, He began his photographic career at age 10 with a neighbor of his grandparents, the pianist and composer Sergei Vasil’evich Rachmaninoff. As a teenager Richard attended DeWitt Clinton’s literary and art magazine with American novelist and civil rights activist James Baldwin as its literary editor.

At the age of 19 after a brief of attending Columbia University  he joined the Merchant Marine where he received professional training in photography, taking identification pictures of the crewmen with a Rolleiflex camera that was given to him by his father. Avedon continued with photography upon his return at The Design Laboratory at the New School for Social Research where Alexey Brodovitch the art director of Harper’s Bazaar was an instructor. Avedon was also developed his skills photographing his sister Louise who was two younger than himself. Avedon became a professional photographer at the end of World War II and from 1946 to 1965 was a regular contributor to Harper’s Bazaar. Brodovitch saw the potential of Avedon’s private work, but rejected his first shoots for Harper’s on the grounds that they were too similar and predictable.

Avedon in his assessment of his own work has tended to downplay this sense of honesty that he draws from his subjects, but it is something that cannot be denied. He is interested in unique personalities, not in socially and culturally approved mannerisms and stereotypes. While this has always been a hallmark of his work, it is especially striking when one looks at his work from the 1950s. This is due in large measure to the fact that he was so very much in the avant-garde: Other photographers would catch up to him, but during the 1950s he was one of the few photographers working within the world of commerce to be able to bring both such technical brilliance and such a sense of psychological depth to his subjects.

Although he has always been very much in command of his own style, Avedon has also always been very much a product of his environment, and his work can be seen to benefit directly from the work of several photographers who, during the decades of the 1920s and 30s, created a style of photography that was philosophically in tune with a word that had been in essential ways diminished by World War I.

Among the important influences on Avedon – and indeed to some extent on his generation – was Edward Steichen. Steichen had actually served as the aerial photography commander for the American Expeditionary Forces during the Great War, and when he returned to civilian life he had shed the impressionistic style that had marked his work before the war. His new work, which was focused on celebrity portraits, had a sharp, rather unforgiving edge to it. In both cases, the photographers seemed intent on trapping their subjects in a moment of time, a strategy that tended to emphasize the impermanence of the subject and of human life rather than suggesting the timeless quality of the photographic image itself.

Avedon’s work a clear influence of the great manipulator of light Edward Weston. Like Steichen, Weston too turned from a pictorialist, softened view of the world in his photographs to a more realistic one in the years after World War I. In part this was a question of a change in his philosophy. But it was also the direct result of his changing the technical way in he worked, adjusting traditional methods of working with a view camera to achieve a great depth of field while avoiding the use of any artificial light.

Avedon has not been as stringent in this avoidance of the use of artificial light, but his works retain the quality of being lit naturally: They appear to have been created without artificial light. This combination of the appearance of the naturally lit subject with a hard-edged elegance gives a dualistic quality to the work of Weston and even more so to that of Weston: The subjects appear to be both innocent as well as, if not exactly guilty, at least deeply knowledgeable.

Finally, one must list among the important predecessors for Avedon’s style Ansel Adams who, influenced by Paul Strand’s beautifully detailed shots of the natural world, decided to make photography his own calling and produced some of the most memorable photographs of the 20th century. The subject matter of Adamas and Avedon is in general strikingly different, for while Avedon was making celebrity portraits Adams was celebrating the unimaginable beauties of the great natural places. In both cases, the photographers seem to be suggesting that judging a book by its cover might not in fact be such a bad idea after all, for the detail of a surface provides clues by which to interpret what lies beneath

Other photographers influenced Avedon as well, passing on to him their own influenced from the world of abstract art that was growing tremendously in importance in the years just after World War I. Photographers like Stieglitz and those cited above opened up to distinctly different pathways for the photographers who came after them. The great strength of Avedon’s work is that he refused to choose between these divergent paths, preferring instead to combine the two. As photography in many ways came of age in the 1950s in the commercial arena, Avedon was one of the first artists to demonstrate the possibility of the medium; he would consistently refuse to compromise on the potential of the form. Much of what marks Avedon’s work as so powerful is that is never sought to objectify his subjects, something that was especially striking in the 1950s when images of women were concerned.

Richard Avedon was, no doubt, a huge influence on American culture during the mid-1990s. His creativity shone through his unique approach to what photography should do for the world and allowed him to become one of the greatest photographers of all time. Although Avedon might not have been the most skillful photographer there ever was, what he saw through the lens of his camera was extraordinary and world-changing, making him a great leader in the field of photography.

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