Portrait Masters: Richard Avedon

Ask almost any portrait photographer for the major influences on their craft or career and the name of Richard Avedon is likely to be mentioned.

Born is New York in 1923, Avedon studied photography before becoming an advertising photographer then opening his own studio in 1946. He worked for Vogue and Life magazine, specializing in fashion images but often breaking with tradition with both more natural and emotional images in outdoor locations, and his creative concepts.

He continued his fashion and celebrity work throughout his career with his subjects including The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe, Dwight Eisenhower, Christopher Reeve and Andy Warhol. His portraiture though also included many others, including civil rights activists, politicians, anti-war protesters and patients of mental institutions. In The American West has become widely seen as his most important collection of work, although some have also criticized it for being patronizing towards the subject material.

Avedon became known both for creating large prints of his work and also for his technique of using stark plain white studio backgrounds to simplify his images and direct all attention to his subjects.

Truman Capote, New York, October 10, 1955

Truman Capote, New York, October 10, 1955

Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955

Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955

A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.
Ronald Fischer, beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9, 1981

Ronald Fischer, beekeeper, Davis, California, May 9, 1981

If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.
Andy Warhol, artist, New York, August 29, 1969

Andy Warhol, artist, New York, August 29, 1969

I always prefer to work in the studio. It isolates people from their environment. They become in a sense...symbolic of themselves. I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or a fortune teller-to find out how they are. So they are dependent on me. I have to engage them. Otherwise there is nothing to photograph.
Sandra Bennett, twelve-year-old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980

Sandra Bennett, twelve-year-old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980

Chet Baker, singer, New York, January 16, 1986

Chet Baker, singer, New York, January 16, 1986

Lessons to learn from Richard Avedon

Minimalism was certainly a tool that he used frequently, to remove distractions and have all attention focused on the subject in isolation from any surroundings.

Key to Avedon's work though was his interactions with his subjects, how he related to them to draw a response and find the image that he had in mind to create.

You can see much more of Avedon's work here or there is also a dedicated iPad app with a wide range of his images.