Richard Avedon found me when I was about 14 years old. I’d love to tell you that it was a family friend who introduced me to his magic and helped me understand his vision, but no. I found a big hard cover copy of The Sixties on sale in the big smoke. I liked it. I didn’t know who Avedon was and, in a time before Google, I didn’t really have any way to find out. There wasn’t anyone to ask. At least I don’t think there was.
So this book was maybe £10 and these faces captured me. Their expressions and openness. Bob Dylan, the Beetles, I’m pretty sure Janis Joplin is in there too and I’m pretty sure I liked her instantly. It’s been a while since I flipped through it, I really should find it next time I’m home.
Avedon was never really a street or documentary photographer. The found image didn’t satisfiy his sense of drama. When he began shooting editorials he captured the ‘American Beauty’ in a way no one had before. He created striking scenes with elephants, dancers and snakes.
But when I think of Avedon, I think only of his portraits. To him, there was nothing more interesting than the face. When left to his own shoots, he operated off a series of no’s which brought him to his yes. No to colour, no to props, no to pretence and yes to the face, to the wrinkles, to the soul inside. This was controversial, he took sometimes unflattering photographs. But he captured emotions and stories – whether they were true or his own creation wasn’t always obvious.
He apparently got these expressions by telling the Duke and Dutchess of Windsor that his car had hit a dog on his way to the shoot. He knew they were dog lovers, he knew what it would do to them and he knew what he would achieve.
It is said that all portraits are self portraits. As photographers we’re looking for parts of ourselves out there through our lenses. Avedon tended to create controversy as he sought out fragments of himself in the faces of others and he would have achieved nothing otherwise.
Richard Avedon, you weren’t afraid to say no, you made photographs which you felt had a bigger worth than the aesthetic and you were restless in your search for your vision. I have plenty to learn from you yet but I’m working on it.