recently



i went back and looked at my collection of avedon's images. i owe the man so very much, he brought me to america. at school, back in munich, his name alone invoked god. later it opened so many doors, then as a young photographer and much later as venerable teacher. yet, i am torn. not about the memory of that ravishing man with those sparkling eyes, the man of style and substance of a past in new york, a time at that of an extraordinary age in photography. this new york in the sixties, a place and a life, now looking back, which was so singularly remarkable of its time. and still is.

i have studied avedon's work for ever, then, in munich at school, where i had access to his first book, 'observation'. and later, when i worked as his assistent and now, some fifty years later, away from that glorious rush was new york. looking at those photographs today, i am of two minds. there is that reverent notion, beholding ikons, and then, well, my critical eye asks how has his work maintained a visual value? is this work still of importance now? some say avedon was a mere fashion photographer, making images of his time for what the world of magazines wanted. my students asked me often what was it like to be next to this famous man. i worked for him and that was no time to ask. i swept the floor, i developed film. i abided by his every word and command. he was celestial, i worshipped him. going home, down in that four by four elevator, he rushed in just as the door closed. the far corner wouldn't give way. his charm tried to put me at ease, but i was petrified.

once, i was printing avedon's proof prints, imagine, and that day audrey hepburn was to come for a sitting. i've loved that hepburn, if from afar, and wouldn't want to miss greeting her. but i did. an older, an elderly woman, i was twenty then, and she walked in inconspicuously. i scarcely knew her on the set, though transformed, make-up, hair, the look, the lot and much later, sessions done, prints made with avedon's instructions to his retoucher, circled in red grease pencil with an arrow pointing to her face: bob, make her beautiful. the final images appeared, and there was that hepburn, the audrey of my dreams. i was in awe then, but now, looking at those many images, the famous one of marilyn monroe:


there was no photoshop then. no obvious, all-present gismo to fix a face, let alone a bust line. top retouchers enabled top photographers to improve images in subtle and often obvious ways. avedon made much use of such 'techniques', as well as he could. this simply an observation, no critique intended, none applied. his portraits stand alone and remain so, like them or not, they are extraordinary, in some cases historic images of the famous, the infamous as well as the ordinary.


vladimir horowitz

the on the left was published, not so the other. why? neither image really represents horowitz, the man who could play scriabin like no other, but again, who cares? it is avedon's image and likely like all of his work it is wonderfully autobiographical, a self portrait in ways.


and that fabulous image of chaplin i saw when i first entered the studio, an enormously huge print. this image, maybe seven feet wide, was rumored to be the last photo taken before he left america for good. but was that really the great charlie chaplin? or simply an avedon?
as his student, his assistent, he sometimes took time to look at my own photographs. he never questioned my technique, printing, lighting or camera choice, but always commented on substance. looking through my portraits he would ask about concept and notions. whose idea was this? how did i invent this photo or that. he looked at my portrait of diane arbus exclaiming: brutal! one of tomi ungerer: funny! and one of jasper johns: beautiful! i believe that this had been avedon's mantra: concept - idea - notion. and always the image. though he well understood most all technical ambit and extent, like camera, light, film and print, what ultimately counted was the image. that compelling image, an image he created. 


i see the photograph of the young woman you might see at the start of 'in the american west'. the girl was horrified, this wasn't at all what she saw when she looked in the mirror, not at all what she wanted to look like. her best friends wouldn't even recognize her. yet, the image is so very striking, extraordinarily so, and who cares what she wanted to look like. it is avedon's image, after all. this is especially true of images displayed in 'the american west'.


all relatively plain images of mere woman and men, drifters and slaughterhouse workers, fathers and sons, none fashionistas for sure. their expressions, their eyes as they look at us, will live beyond. ultimately, though, who am i to judge avedon's work? i have had my fifteen minutes of fame, no more, for sure, but i certainly know how to see. my eye has been trained by the best, after all. i have no intention to judge, but to examine and determine what i saw in his work then and what i understand now. avedon's photographs will remain. and in time those who sat in his range won't likely be there to complain.


all images from richard avedon foundation, www.richardavedon.com