Richard Avedon, who died Friday morning of complications from a cerebral hemorrhage, would have hated being described as the quintessential fashion photographer. He was, after all, so much more than that, as his 2002 portrait show at the Metropolitan Museum made abundantly clear. But it was Avedon’s fashion work that first propelled him into the public eye and made him a celebrity in his own right. Even before he became the model for Fred Astaire’s debonair charmer, Dick Avery, in the 1957 musical Funny Face, Avedon had established himself as a witty, opinionated, passionately engaged man-about-town. His utterly instinctive immersion in the zeitgeist, combined with a genuine empathy for the women he photographed, gave his fashion work not just verve but immediacy and emotion.
Avedon brought the same qualities, plus a soul-searching penetration, to his portraiture, which became his primary focus in recent years, notably in the pages of The New Yorker, which enlisted him as its first staff photographer in 1992. From the beginning, portraiture was a refuge from fashion—an arena where artifice, flattery, even comfort could be put aside and Avedon could connect with his subjects directly. The results could be startling—a deflated, desolate Marilyn Monroe; imperious Isak Dinesen; chillingly rapacious Duke and Duchess of Windsor—but never gratuitously cruel. Throughout his career, Avedon’s interest was notably broad and democratic; although he shot virtually every celebrity, artist, and public figure who caught his voracious interest, he also photographed couples at the marriage bureau in City Hall, bathers at Coney Island, strollers in Times Square, and, most famously, the citizens of “The American West.” Avedon also distinguished himself by his political commitment, evident in “The Family,” his 1976 portfolio of the Washington power elite for Rolling Stone, and in the portraits of activists, outlaws, and counterculture icons from Allen Ginsberg to Janis Joplin collected in “The Sixties.”
Because Avedon’s grasp of the moment—every moment—was so intense, so vivacious, his photographs feel at once of their time and remarkably ageless. He trained an intelligent, idiosyncratic, and acutely critical eye on the world, and the world will miss the attention.