Fashion photography came into popular use in the 1880s, when new technologies made it quick and easy to reproduce images of society women wearing the latest designs. The primary function of the fashion photograph was to represent the clothes as accurately as possible. All this changed with Richard Avedon.
In 1947, the young American photographer arrived in France determined to represent French fashions as though casually observed on the streets of Paris. Replacing stiff poses with energetic action shots, like a model leaping over a puddle or riding a bicycle, he transformed the pages of fashion magazines forever.
Born into a Jewish family in New York City in 1923, Avedon worked as a photographer for the Merchant Marines before training with the legendary designer Alexey Brodovitch at the New School for Social Research. Brodovitch also worked as the art director at Harper’s Bazaar, and soon Avedon’s photographs were appearing in the fashion pages of the magazine.
It was the combination of realism and the fantastic that made Avedon’s photographs so extraordinary. His women nuzzled elephants, posed among circus performers, balanced on walls. So celebrated did he become that he inspired the film Funny Face featuring his favourite model, Audrey Hepburn.
By the 1960s, he was being commissioned to photograph the powerful and the accomplished, among them The Beatles, Frank Sinatra, Marilyn Monroe and John F. Kennedy. He developed a deceptively simple studio portrait style, uncompromising and direct, portraying his subjects against white backgrounds.
In 1979, Avedon was commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas to create portraits of ordinary people of the American West. The images, unflinching depictions of teenagers, miners, waitresses and drifters, became the most important body of work the photographer made and shattered the stereotypes of the American West.
In 2001, he was elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He died of a cerebral haemorrhage in 2004 while working on an assignment for The New Yorker magazine.
In 2020, Avedon’s quintessential image, Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, 1955, achieved a world auction record for the photographer at Christie’s New York, selling for $1,815,000.
Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, 1955
Blue Cloud Wright, Slaughterhouse Worker, Omaha, Nebraska, August 10, 1979
Dovima with Elephants, Evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, 1955
Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall, Dress by Dior, Place de la Concorde, Paris, August 1956
Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, 1955
Brigitte Bardot, Hair by Alexandre, Paris Studio, Paris, France, January 1959
Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955
Lew Alcindor, Basketball Player, 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York City, May 2, 1963