2.12.2018

What are we reading during "quiet time" in the studio today? Yes, that's right, it's about Photography!!!

AVEDON. Something Personal.  The Biography.

I hadn't seen a lot of press about this book when I stumbled across it. As a big, big Avedon fan I had to buy it and start reading it immediately. In my estimate he's one of the five powerhouse photographers who shaped Photography across the 20th century; especially in the United States of America. His work is powerful and seems to be doing a great job withstanding all tests of time.

So here, finally, is a definitive biography of a man who changed the business of photography, written by a business partner who knew him socially, commercially and as one of his closest confidantes. 

The interesting thing, to me, about the book and the story it tells is how Avedon almost single-handedly demanded that photographers of a certain stature get well paid for their work, their insight and their art. Consider this, in 1965 he was asked to become a photographer for Vogue Magazine. He'd been the super star photographer at Harper's Bazaar previously. He demanded (and got!) a contract for one million dollars per year. In 1965. And this was not an exclusive contract, nor were the demands on his time constricting. He continued to work for the French arts magazine, Egoiste, as well as a legion of commercial, advertising clients. 

The reason he was able to command lofty fees and huge retainers? It was a simple equation; when Avedon shot something the metrics of newsstand magazines sales and client product sales skyrocketed. Clearly he was able to tap into the markets in a way his competitors could not, and he was rewarded for it. 

While the book, written by his business partner of 37 years, has a chatty, sorority girl feel to the prose and the subject matter ranges from deep insights into business and art philosophy all the way to catty name calling and reputation slamming but the underlying stories are endlessly fascinating to someone like me who is still amazed at what Avedon was able to accomplish, and the legacy he left behind. 

I'm on page 335 of 672 pages and I'm loathe to put it down; even to write this...

If you want to see just how golden that particular "golden age" of photography was then this is the history book that looks behind the seamless background paper of a master image maker who was, perhaps, even more masterful as the marketer of his own image and vision. It's well worth the read if only to serve as a kick in the ass to raise your own expectations of what can be done.

Buy it. Read it. Laugh at it. Whatever. 

Note: I know that some readers don't hold Avedon in the same regard I do and I'm willing to listen to your (valid, non-emotional) reasons but if you just want to come here and trash him be aware that those comments probably won't pass by our resident censor. 

9 comments:

  1. OK, you sold me the book -- Kindle edition so I'm already reading it. Promises to be a great read.

    Avedon was at his peak about the time I started in photography. I didn't appreciate him much then, it was only later when I got serious about portraits that I began to understand what he was doing. Now I get this very entertaining look behind the scenes.

    Thanks for the tip.

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  2. Just a note about Avedon the teenager, who as a De Witt Clinton High School senior and member of the Photography Club while I was a Junior and club member, also wrote highly imaginative fiction for the annual literary magazine. It contained words I did not know existed (e.g."phantasmagorical") but which were matched for originality and flights of imagination by his photographic work. This was at a time when the Modern Museum already had a Photo Collection, so that I was familiar with the work of the time and was trying to absorb (and imitate) it. This would have been 1940, as well as I can place it. Unfortunately he was not particularly communicative during the club meetings and I, as a younger person, would not have known how to approach him, so I missed the opportunity to recognize that talent and learn from it.

    Thanks for your article and for your site - it's invaluable!

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  3. It is a great book, a riveting read from start to finish. Both my wife and I read it and couldn't put it down. The short commentaries of various models, assistants, friends and media folk is a masterstroke -- even when their comments contradict one another. Avedon comes alive in its pages and it is difficult to believe that any other author could have written a more revealing portrait.

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  4. I immediately bought the book for the parts describing his relationship/rivalry with Irving Penn. Braque wrote about his relationship with Picasso in the early cubist days as being like mountain climbers, roped together, first one ascending, then the other. Picasso said that each of them visited the other's studio almost nightly: "Each of us had to see what the other had done." For me, Penn and Avedon are that pair in photography; neither one would have gone so far without the other. The book has some fascinating and moving information. For example, who knew that Avedon bought print no. 1 of the entire set of Penn's cigarette photos?
    It's worth also reading this article from the TIMES: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/01/arts/a-literary-portrait-of-richard-avedon-causes-controversy.html, wherein the Avedon foundation weighs in against the factual accuracy of portions of the book.
    The fact is that both Penn and Avedon deserve serious biographies and studies, but for this to happen the foundations, the heirs, all have to relax their iron grips and grant access.

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  5. I like Avedon's work but I do not seem to visit it as often as others, like Penn or Erwitt.

    I think the reason for this is that I find his work a bit "samey". He does not inject enough variety into his structure for my tastes.

    He is a master of getting his subjects to provide a vacant, emotionless stare. I think this neutrality on the part of the subject is perhaps intended to get us to explore the person more, but after a while of seeing most of his subjects with a neutral gaze, I crave for more spontaneity.

    Mind you, he has given us the most terrific portraits of Isabella Rosellini.

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  6. Wait til you read HOLD STILL, Sally Mann.
    Also excellent. She writes as well as she photographs.

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  7. Highly recommend the documentary "Richard Avedon Darkness and Light" here

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  8. I am not that far into the book, but already I am struck by how greatly Avedon's attitude toward his sitters and working style for portraits differs from yours.

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  9. The Richard Avedon Foundation contests several facts in the book, among them that.."that Avedon was paid $1 million a year to join Vogue as a fashion photographer (he signed a contract with Condé Nast that awarded him $1 million over 20 years)." From the NY Times, 1/1/18. Adjusted for inflation, in 1965 that would be the equivalent $8,000,000 today!

    In the early 70's one of his assistants gave me tour of the studio. About all I can recall today is that I was surprised to see that he used a lot of TLR Rolleiflexes. My favorite anecdote is that when his printers showed him prints for review, they tried to catch him where he didn't have access to a grease pencil. Otherwise, they would always get marked up and sent back for another edition.

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