A bubbly, hyperactive, obsessive character for most of his 71 years, Avedon clearly isn't quite himself. And even he doesn't fully understand why, especially at a time when he's being showered with recognition. The man who revolutionized fashion photography during the '50s with his playful, sensual images Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, and who later became equally famous for his stark, often cruel portraits of politicians, celebrities and everyday people, Avedon is now being honored with a major retrospective at New York City's Whitney Museum of American Art. This week, Random House is publishing Evidence 1944-1994, based on the museum show, and last year's An Autobiography, a massive collection of his photographs, sold well despite its $100 price.
Instead of being buoyed by all this testimony to his brilliant career, Avedon sounds a bit gloomy. Many critics have savaged the Whitney show and slammed Avedon (the philistine who let nothing come between Brooke Shields and her Calvins and who draped a python around a naked Nastassja Kinski) for asking to be taken seriously as an artist. But, insists Avedon, "I don't give a damn how I'm taken." Rather, he suspects his funk may "have something to do with the books and show having culmination—'The End'—written all over them." Whatever the cause, he says, "there's now a glass wall, a distance, between myself and feelings of any kind. Someone I know is suffering, and I say, 'Yeah, well, that's what you do when you're young.' I look at my work and don't remember what I felt or how impassioned I was." And is he troubled by this newfound sense of detachment? "Not at all. I'm neither upset nor happy. This could be over in a month or maybe never; I don't care. That's, the point."
Born and raised in New York City, Avedon was the only son of Jacob Israel Avedon, a Russian-Jewish immigrant who started a successful retail dress business on Fifth Avenue. Avedon remembers his father, who died in 1973, as a stern disciplinarian who "was really hot on dumb quotes from Shakespeare and Teddy Roosevelt" and who insisted that physical strength, education and money prepared one for the world. It was Avedon's mother, Anne, who took young Richard to see Rachmaninoff at Carnegie Hall and Fred Astaire at Radio City and gave him a grounding in beauty and style.
An introverted child who was uncomfortable hanging out with the kids on the block, Avedon often retreated to his dark bedroom—a literal camera obscura—and peered out through a tiny strip of shade. He soon began fiddling with the family's Kodak Box Brownie. At the beach one day, 9-year-old Richard taped a negative of his younger sister, Louise, onto his upper arm, imprinting the image onto his skin; by 12 he was wandering into Central Park and taking self-portraits.
In 1942, at 19, Avedon signed up with the photography department of the U.S. Merchant Marine in Brooklyn, where he spent most of his time taking ID photos. Two years later, the self-taught photographer went professional when he persuaded the chic department store Bonwit Teller to lend him some clothes for a fashion shoot and spent all his savings to hire an expensive model. Avedon was an immediate hit; Bonwit bought his pictures and signed him up for freelance work. In 1946 his shots of models playing leapfrog and walking on stilts—a radical departure from the frozen, formal studio shots that had long been in vogue—won him a staff job at Harper's Bazaar. "I began to photograph my enthusiasms—I liked girls who were full of imagination and fun, and I loved watching them move," he says. "I wasn't interested in fashion but in making images that reflected a burst of energy and joy."
During his two decades at Bazaar, Avedon look his models to the zoo and the waterfront, the Eiffel Tower and the pyramids, where they laughed, cavorted and posed with gay theatricality. In 1956 Avedon served as visual consultant on Funny Face, the movie musical starring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn that was loosely based on his life. By the time he went to Vogue in 1966, the "Avedon look" was fully established, and his studio was pulling in a quarter of a million dollars a year.
Avedon's personal life was all but eclipsed by his work. His 1944 marriage to model Dorcas "Doe" Nowell ended in divorce after five years. Subsequently his beloved sister Louise, a withdrawn child who had been in psychiatric treatment since adolescence, began lapsing into madness. During her twenties she worked as a photo retoucher in his studio, but she soon stopped speaking and became almost catatonic. She was hospitalized and spent more than a decade in mental institutions before she died at age 42. "I guess the diagnosis was schizophrenia, but I can't say for sure," says Avedon. "I've blocked a lot of this out."
During the '50s, Avedon turned his gaze upon artists and celebrities and began developing a signature portrait style in which his subjects were frontally posed against a blank background, their every flaw exposed and their souls seemingly stripped bare. With Nothing Personal (1964)—a distinctly unflattering collection of notable Americans including Marilyn Monroe and Dwight Eisenhower—and his '70s pictures of Rose Kennedy, Henry Kissinger and Avedon's father, Jacob, dying of cancer, Avedon earned a reputation as a camera-wielding assassin. "I don't understand the charges," he says. "My portraits seem extraordinarily compassionate and moving to me. How can that be cruel?"
Avedon believes his work captures a fleeting truth of the moment, which often has to do with his mood or preoccupation at the time. The lost souls of In the American West (1985), for example—an unsparing collection of the working class, disaffected and down-and-out—reflected "the sense I have of being trapped," says Avedon. "Theirs are faces that imply a kind of victimization—and beauty." While he claims he is never intentionally mean to his subjects, he admits to being manipulative, cropping and highlighting his prints to produce the exact image he wants.
That was certainly the case with his famous photograph of the Bee Man, an image that had come to him in a dream. Avedon hired beekeeper Ronald Fischer and had his naked torso slathered with queen-bee hormone where he wanted the bees to alight. Some of the drones, however, headed for the dark passages of Fischer's nostrils. "Avedon is shooting, and the bees are forming a mustache on me, and he says, 'No mustache! Get rid of the mustache!' " recalls Fischer. When the apian expert Avedon had hired began swatting the drones away, they began stinging Fischer. Avedon paused only long enough to let his subject's tears subside before resuming the shoot. Still, Fischer remembers Avedon as "a plain old guy—just a nice, friendly chap."
Others who have seen Avedon at work are less generous. "His ego is so overblown, and he is self-centered to a fault—a person who loves his own work to the exclusion of all others," says a New York City fashion editor. A case in point was his behavior at a recent February fashion awards ceremony, where Avedon, presenting an award to stylist Polly Mellen, rattled on for 15 minutes about a marvelous shoot they had done with Stephanie Seymour—and then projected onscreen an enormous image of the model baring her crotch. "Even in the fashion world, which is beyond outrage, people were appalled," says the editor. "But Avedon's a 900-pound gorilla. He can sit wherever he wants."
Not quite. Having shot virtually every Vogue cover since 1966, Avedon had a falling out with editor Anna Wintour in 1988; four years later, he became the first-ever staff photographer at The New Yorker. He also continues to do advertisements (it was he who directed those erotic, mini-melodrama Obsession commercials on TV), which help bankroll his studio and a full lime staff of 10.
Avedon lives on an upstairs floor of his Upper East Side town house, while his wife, Evelyn Franklin, whom he married in 1951, has an apartment downtown—an arrangement they have maintained for some 15 years. "Evelyn and I came together to have a child, a life together," he says. (Their son, John, 41, is a writer who is separated from his second wife, Maura, 36, the daughter of Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan.) "But what's happened is I'm married to my work." His mother lives just a few blocks away. Avedon's daily routine, which always involves work, includes rising at 6, turning on the coffee machine and doing the previous day's dishes. A personal trainer visits three limes weekly. "My health is perfect," says Avedon, who normally looks remarkably fit and vital.
But not today. Avedon's voice has grown raspy, and he sighs with relief when an assistant informs him that QVC Network chairman Barry Diller has canceled his sitting that afternoon. "You know, I may be entering a place that separates me from the world," he says. "My faith is that it will find its way into my photography. Maybe I'm preparing for whatever this last phase of work will be. And maybe it will be much colder—not that it can get much more than it is lately." Perhaps sensing that he may have said too much, Avedon catches himself and laughs. "My! That's very grand!"