Upper West Side Story: The Dazzling Rise of Richard Avedon

A Biography of Richard Avedon
By Philip Gefter

Toward the beginning of “What Becomes a Legend Most,” Philip Gefter sets a scene. A 17-year-old Dicky Avedon, awkward and insecure but with “a would-be poet’s impulse” to look for magic all around him, is working in the darkroom of his friend Mike’s photography studio on West 57th Street. Suddenly three giggling debutantes burst in, close to him in age but impossibly remote in their breezy patrician privilege. Customers at Mike’s mother’s candy store uptown, they are looking for a place to change, “out of sight of any parental supervision … into evening wear for a night out at the Stork Club, where their stealth mission to find suitable husbands allowed tony socializing in a splendorous atmosphere, and also provided a great deal of winsome fun.”

But the real fun was had by Dicky, and it was of an aesthetic rather than a winsome kind. To watch the girls slip out of their school uniforms and into “full formal regalia — strapless tulle evening dresses, long white gloves and … their mothers’ ‘important’ jewelry” — was to witness “the very anatomy of glamour as it materialized before his eyes.” The teenagers turned “swans” — as their and Avedon’s future friend Truman Capote would later dub them — were Gloria Vanderbilt, Carol Marcus (later Mrs. Walter Matthau) and Oona O’Neill (later Mrs. Charlie Chaplin). And they were harbingers of a future that Dicky had yet to imagine — one in which his name, even more than theirs, would evoke and define the anatomy of glamour.

For all its purple-prosy flourishes, this passage highlights a dual thread in the Avedon biography. First, it anticipates the conquest of high society by an outsider whose middle-class Jewish background and (closeted) homosexuality ought, in the logic of midcentury WASP bigotry, to have barred him from that milieu. Second, it posits a catalytic moment in the hero’s own transformation — from a “would-be” into an actual creative genius. Thus described, Avedon’s trajectory bears a notable resemblance to that of the writer he claimed as a defining influence: Marcel Proust, an interloper among swans who in mining their world for poetry produced a work of profound insight and enduring beauty. Although not drawn by Gefter, a former New York Times journalist and the author of several volumes on photography, this analogy squares with his stated “belief in Avedon as one of the most consequential artists of the 20th century.” Accordingly, his aim in “What Becomes a Legend Most” is “to make a case for Avedon’s place of achievement alongside his peers in the pantheon of 20th-century arts and letters.”

In this effort, Gefter weaves the particulars of Avedon’s life story into a larger narrative about American culture in the decades after World War II. Born in 1923 on the Upper West Side, an enclave for next-generation Jewish immigrant families like his, Avedon established himself while still in his 20s as a leading figure first in the “glossy” — a favorite Gefter term — realm of fashion photography, and then in the field of photographic portraiture. His prodigious talents, combined with a “vaulting ambition” that “was somewhat obstreperous and could not be … contained,” soon made him as rich and famous as the living legends he captured on film. His meteoric professional rise stands as a particularly dazzling instance of the upward mobility and optimism that characterized postwar American society as a whole.

And yet, no matter how much money he made or how much caviar and Champagne — essentials in the business of “being Richard Avedon” — he consumed, Avedon longed for “something purer and more universal”: “recognition … as an artist inventing a visual language that would become ever more coherent in time.” Throughout his life, he kept close and envious tabs on those of his contemporaries to whom critics and museum curators did grant such recognition, be they gritty New York School photographers like Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and (an honorary affiliate of the group) Robert Frank, or iconoclastic young painters like Jasper Johns, Robert Rauschenberg and Andy Warhol. A number of these acknowledged visionaries were Avedon’s acquaintances and friends; some even posed for his camera. At best, keeping company with them gave Avedon access to the most audacious and “transgressive energies then animating and shaping American culture,” in the words of a former director of the Richard Avedon Foundation. Perhaps less helpfully, it encouraged him to measure his artistic standing against theirs — “Dick thought of himself … as a peer of people like Jasper Johns, Rauschenberg,” his gallerist notes — and that comparison would dismay him for a good half-century. Only in 2002, when the Metropolitan Museum staged a high-minded exhibit of his portraiture, did the validation he had yearned for finally come his way. He died two years later at the age of 81.

To explain the art world’s longtime disregard for Avedon’s oeuvre, Gefter ventures several theories. One is that, because Avedon not only worked for magazines but also shot advertising campaigns and accepted lucrative portrait commissions, his reputation suffered from “the taint of commerce”: a career-killer, we are told, at a time when “the barrier between art and commerce was … as impermeable as that between church and state.” A related hypothesis is that “‘fashion’ was a ghetto within the world of commerce, so he was doubly scarred.” Still another holds that the art establishment shunned photography more generally. (“He wanted to be taken seriously as an artist but was foiled by the bastard medium he embraced … which made the struggle to be seen as an artist that much more encumbered.”) In the end, though, none of these explanations rings altogether true, if only because Gefter himself provides so much evidence to refute them: from the sensational artistic triumphs of Warhol (miraculously unhindered by commercialism’s “barrier” and “taint”) and Arbus (not in the least bit “foiled” by her medium) to the venerable reputation that Avedon’s chief rival in the fashion-photography business, Irving Penn, enjoyed among art-world insiders. (When presented with a proposal for an Avedon show at the Whitney, Leonard Lauder, the revered collector then serving as the museum’s board president, “quietly uttered, ‘It couldn’t be Penn?’”)

These counterproofs do not strengthen Gefter’s case for Avedon’s “towering stature as an artist of the 20th century.” Even so, his account is valuable for its cleareyed, if not always clearly expressed, understanding of the innovations Avedon brought to his chosen genres. For starters, from the outset of his career as a fashion photographer in the mid-1940s, he infused daring new life into a moribund visual idiom, characterized by staid models stiffly posed against uninspired backdrops. Working first for Harper’s Bazaar and then for Vogue, Avedon created fanciful, engaging compositions alive with youthful irreverence, spontaneity and fun. At the same time, his pictures conveyed a strikingly mature, exquisitely lyrical sense of gesture and movement. In Gefter’s parlance: “Avedon asserted into the world a ‘gesture’ in the form of an idea about being alive — joyfully, pleasurably, beautifully — that would remain embodied in the implication of his name.”

This approach generated some of the most iconic photographs in the entire history of fashion. “Dovima With Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris” (1955), to take just one example, is a study in quirky balletic grace, capturing the harmony of sinuous lines achieved by the model’s elegantly upraised arm and outstretched leg, her gigantic sculptural sash and the exuberant lift of one elephant’s trunk. Gefter does not cite this fact, but in 2017 Time magazine named “Dovima With Elephants” one of the 100 “Most Influential Images of All Time.” It was the only fashion photograph on the list.

Avedon’s portrait photography enjoys comparably towering status in modern visual culture. To some extent, this is due to the staggering range of social, political and cultural luminaries who sat for his camera. Rudolf Nureyev, Dorothy Parker, Malcolm X, Marilyn Monroe, Bob Dylan, Marella Agnelli, Marian Anderson, Samuel Beckett, Audrey Hepburn, James Baldwin, Jasper Johns, Leontyne Price, W. H. Auden, Alberto Giacometti, Shirley Chisholm, Truman Capote, Steve McQueen, Bianca Jagger, Ezra Pound, Katharine Graham, Jerome Robbins, Isak Dinesen, Charlie Chaplin, Sophia Loren, Willem de Kooning, Janis Joplin, George H. W. Bush, Brigitte Bardot, Norman Mailer, Nastassja Kinski, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton, President Kennedy and his smiling first lady, the Duke of Windsor and his scowling Duchess … Avedon snapped them all, and many, many more. He always claimed, however, that the identity of the sitter mattered little to him; and indeed, he produced countless, equally artful portraits of obscure and “ordinary” folk. Ultimately, he said, he cared about nothing but mapping “the geography of the face — the emotional geography as revealed through what I see on the face.”

Avedon brought a stark minimalism to his investigations, “not only stripping the picture frame to nothing but the subject,” Gefter writes, “but also rendering the individual with precision and exacting clarity.” This hallmark of his portraiture — a face shown in unflinching close-up against a blank white background — had its roots in his wartime service on a merchant marine base, where he was charged with taking his fellow seamen’s ID pictures. In his professional portraiture, he heightened the intensity of his proto-ID shots by enlarging them to outsize proportions, “adding a proscenium-like border, and thereby constructing a double-edged majesty for his subjects, both document and monument.” The resulting images may, the author concedes, appear “stone-cold, corpse-like,” even cruel in their clinical registry of every unsightly wrinkle, blemish, pouch and pore. But in Gefter’s analysis, they issue a haunting rejoinder and a bracing rebuke to the threat — newly evident to postwar Americans — of nuclear destruction. “His portraiture was in service of a noble ambition to declare proof of our existential condition as human beings — a species with the ability to annihilate itself.” Read in the context of our own precarious political and ecological moment, this assessment alone argues eloquently for the abiding, even urgent relevance of Avedon’s imperfect Art.

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