Richard Avedon: In Close Corridors

IN CLOSE CORRIDORS

“He was trying to cut to the heart of the matter - to understand what people’s lives were really like under force of pressure. His work, in a way, strips away the masks that we all wear, and in doing so reveals a kind of deeper humanity. I think that when photographers today, or artists or writers or the public at large, look at his photographs, that this is what they’ll really be able to take away from the work; this penetrating of the masks that we all wear in order to hide ourselves.”

PAUL ROTH

Senior curator of photography & media arts, Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Stephanie Seymour for Versace F/W 1993

Stephanie Seymour for Versace F/W 1993

    Richard Avedon was a radical artist that fought for self-expression in the early American political social scene throughout some of the most pivotal years in fashion history. In the arc of a career that stretched for -60 full years, Avedon was shooting iconic celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot,  the Dalai Lama, Dwight Eisenhower, Andy Warhol, and Tupac Shakur. Avedon's signature visual emblem during this period became nudity, which made him a valuable leader in the shift towards sexual freedom. For that reason, he had many wondrous subjects reveal themselves in front of the white backdrop of his busy midtown studio. He photographed with a big 8 x10 view camera, which was already kind of anachronistic at that time. He was always a bit of a rebellious spirit in his work, revealing the black edges of his negatives, bodies would be sliced, feet cut off at the ankles, heads cut off at the crown. And unlike most portrait photographers who flatter and idealize their subjects, Avedon was more fascinated in accentuating their flaws.  He had this wonderful expression called avalanche. He would describe seeing age descending on a person like an avalanche, covering them over. So Avedon took great care to photograph the folds of skin, wrinkles, and moles, all with a very sharp lens.

Andy Warhol's Factory gang, namely Paul Morrissey, 'Little Joe' Dallessandro and Candy Darling,   1969.

Andy Warhol's Factory gang, namely Paul Morrissey, 'Little Joe' Dallessandro and Candy Darling, 1969.

    The man was completely infatuated with women and apparently they adored him just the same. He was relatively handsome and known for his intellectual humour, something we can observe in his work. Vogue once described him as “a skinny, radiant fellow who still hasn’t got his full growth, animated as a colt in Maytime, just a lad not long out of college.” Except he never went to college, not even high-school. Alvedon was only 10 years old when he got a box camera and began to explore photography and stray from the regimented education system. He claims to have been a veteran at running away from home, only to return again to his bedroom he fondly remembers being papered ceiling to floor with pictures torn from magazines, photographs by Munkácsi and Steichen and Man Ray.

Richard Avedon & Francis Bacon, 1979.

Richard Avedon & Francis Bacon, 1979.

    Though Avedon’s work was extremely intimate, he himself was actually guarded about his personal life. Many visited and stripped down in the nude in his New York photography studio, yet few were invited into his apartment on the Upper East Side.  Following his death in 2004, the artist’s apartment was discovered and photographed by many of his inamoratos years back. Apparently it was something quite special, decorated like an antique shop filled with items like Navajo blankets and a Vuillard, ivory animal-head bottle stoppers, which was a homage to Giacometti above the toaster oven, and a 2,000-square-foot cabinet of curiosities. The apartment was set up like a series of arranged still-life portraits and everything had a function. Each object selectively chosen and placed, a pilular ritual that was played out when selecting and placing models in his studio work. He was a photographer in every sense. Avedon often placed lights in unusual places, like a table lamp on the floor. “He wanted areas of light and dark,” says Riegel. “The shadows were just as important to him.” His obsession with light was a true testament to his appreciation of art. He would reference his favourite artists often, managing to explain how to roast the perfect lamb by comparing it to the lighting in Goya’s dark paintings. 

Left: Marilyn Monroe & Richard Avedon, Top Right: John & Jackie Kennedy, Bottom Right: Marilyn Monroe

Left: Marilyn Monroe & Richard Avedon, Top Right: John & Jackie Kennedy, Bottom Right: Marilyn Monroe

    Richard Avedon’s work has been the subject of numerous museum exhibitions around the world, helping to establish photography as a contemporary art form. His stark imagery and brilliant insight into his subjects’ characters has made him one of the premier American portrait photographers. The New York Times proclaimed in Avedon’s obituary that “his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America's image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century”. We have shared this rather personal story of Richard Avedon to inspire artists today to live out their passions fearlessly. Read on, these are some intimate moments shared from his own subjects and muses, giving insight into the experience of working with the creative genius, Richard Avedon. ------- 

The whole experience was very strange because you are standing there trying to cover your balls in the middle of this large black studio with assistants, who you can’t quite see, running around in the dark and soothing music is being played in the background. Avedon pushed us into the middle of the space, and we just started assuming poses we could live with later. Not only did Terry take his clothes off, but he had to dangle everything upside down. He liked flaunting his body in those days. The rest of us were sort of like trapped animals in the headlights, and Avedon was somewhere in the shadows clicking away.
— TERRY GILLIAM, Monty Python member
We were running all over the place and were invited by Avedon to come and be photographed. We were delighted, of course. We got there and took our clothes off. But I remember we also got him very high. We brought some weed and he got high with us. He was so high, and he said, “These must be the most beautiful photographs I’ve ever taken.” That’s what he said then. I don’t know if he thought that later! But after we got naked, we just sort of moved around freely, having fun, and he photographed us. This is me, with my back to the camera. That’s my tush. I’m not shy. It just happened that way.
— JUDITH MALINA, co-founder of The Living Theatre
Left: Ralph Fiennes, 1995.  Right: Juan Patricio Lobato (Carney), 1980

Left: Ralph Fiennes, 1995.  Right: Juan Patricio Lobato (Carney), 1980

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