With the deaths this year of Henri Cartier-Bresson, Helmut Newton, and Richard Avedon, the pantheon of great living photographers—the artists who changed not just their medium but the way we look at the world—suddenly seems awfully empty. Of the three, Cartier-Bresson was arguably the most influential—even if his decisive moment is now regarded as hopelessly old-school, it still resonates—and Newton the most deliberately, deliciously provocative. But from the beginning, Avedon was the most vital, the most engaged, the most prolific, and the most vivaciously present. In the nearly six decades since he first burst upon the American scene, he has hardly ever been off it, and his absence is already difficult to bear.
Avedon was 22 and fresh out of the merchant marine in 1945 when he published his first work in Junior Bazaar. Within a year, he’d graduated to Harper’s Bazaar, where, goaded by its brilliant art director, Alexey Brodovitch, and inspired by the example of Martin Munkacsi, he channeled the electric current of post-war optimism into images that still have energy to burn. Before he was 30, he’d revolutionized fashion photography. Among his contemporaries, only Irving Penn was able to achieve and sustain a similarly arresting balance of sophistication and spunk, artifice and emotion. Perhaps because he always seemed genuinely interested in and excited by women, Avedon grounded even the most stylized performances in the drama of feminine vanity, vulnerability, daring, anxiety, or determination. Though he was not the only photographer to adapt cinematic narrative to fashion editorials, he was the most assured and, often, audacious—imagining a languorous ménage à trois on the Spanish coast or a romantic idyll in Ireland, casting Suzy Parker and Mike Nichols as a tempestuous couple stalked by the paparazzi, or most famously, introducing Dovima to the elephants.
Even before he became the model for Fred Astaire’s debonair charmer Dick Avery in the 1957 musical Funny Face, Avedon was famous. He cemented and broadened that fame with two books—Observations (1959), with a text by Truman Capote, and Nothing Personal (1964), with text by James Baldwin—neither of which contained any fashion photographs. With them, Avedon began redefining himself as a portraitist. For some time, he’d been contributing pictures of artists, actors, musicians, filmmakers, and other celebrities to Bazaar and Theatre Arts, establishing an equally distinguished parallel career—one that, in the end, would very nearly eclipse his work in fashion. Though his portraiture was as stylized in its way as his fashion photos, its austere elegance was complicated and often contradicted by its penetrating soulfulness. Avedon’s portraits are frankly, sometimes harshly, opinionated, and that’s what makes them so memorable. Because they’re driven and colored by his deepest concerns and commitments, the collected portraits have become a kind of self-portrait—one that he formalized with the 1993 publication of his massive visual Autobiography. Who else would have brought Anna Magnani, Jean Genet, Marilyn Monroe, Jean Cocteau, Chanel, Beckett, Fabian, Marian Anderson, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, and his own dying father together within the same covers?
Fame and notoriety have their attractions, and Avedon was as susceptible to them as anyone; this was, after all, the man who photographed both Capote and the killers he profiled for In Cold Blood; the Young Lords and the Daughters of the American Revolution; Malcolm X and George Wallace. But not one of these pictures was facile or routine. When he was brought on as The New Yorker‘s first staff photographer in 1992, Avedon’s instincts and intelligence were put to an almost weekly test. He wasn’t exactly performing without a net, but the results were often thrilling and almost always unexpected: Oscar De La Hoya, Michelangelo Antonioni, Teresa Heinz Kerry, Stephen Sondheim, DJ Spooky, Patti Smith, Tilda Swinton nude, John Currin holding up his naked child, Alan Bennett perched in a tree, and in the last issue before his death, Maurizio Cattelan being manhandled like a lump of putty. I can’t imagine anyone else pulling this off week after week with such delicately calibrated gravity and wit, but Avedon clearly relished the challenge and rose to it until the end.
Avedon brought the same sort of restless intelligence to his work in Bazaar and Vogue. But cleverness and inventiveness will only get you so far. What took Avedon further was his passionate involvement in the zeitgeist, his ability to channel the spirit of his time. His fashion work matters not because it records a spectacular woman in a spectacular dress but because it captures that evanescent spirit. Fashion made the portrait work possible, not just by paying the bills, but by keeping Avedon fiercely, relentlessly alert and alive. In recent years, he’d become an anxious caretaker of his own reputation—editing, organizing, re-evaluating everything. He needn’t have worried. The work, even the least of it, lives as vividly as he did.