“No way,” I thought to myself as I read within the first few pages of this book that Avedon was proclaimed by US Camera as “the most controversial figure in photograph” in 1948. Let’s see here: A woman in Paris, flirting with some sailors. A woman on the beach, about to throw a ball. This lady is jumping in a studio – doesn’t Vogue US do that, like, all the time? They’re beautiful pictures, certainly not boring. But how could this be controversial?
Obviously, times changes. But as I read on, I learned that it’s because Richard Avedon changed them. In the ’40s, “controversy” in photography meant changing standard techniques everyone had used for years. This is where a young man in his early twenties, whose only experience involving photography was shooting the identity photos of his fellow sailors in the navy, comes in. He redefined colour, light, and angle. He moved others emotionally as he tried to discover himself. If it were not for Richard Avedon, there would be no Mert or Marcus, Inez or Vinoodh…well, it’s not like he BIRTHED them. I mean, that their signature techniques, like those of many other photographers, were accepted because Avedon tried them out decades earlier. This book helped me to understand this.
Any book about Richard Avedon should have a simple layout so as not to distract from the subject, and this book’s design is on point. Of 371 pages, the majority is photography, arranged by decade, and ordered so that one can see the cohesiveness but still separate individual photos from how they look next to others.
There are then three essays – on his overall objective and career, Bazaar work, and Vogue work – which are all highly informative, including stories of rivalries with photographers such as Irving Penn and relationships with everyone from Diana Vreeland to Brooke Shields’ naughty Calvins. But more interesting to me were the analyses that helped me begin to develop a better understanding of photographer, whether fashion-related or not. The authors point out, for example, that his studio work was analytical and the location work was spontaneous. The book also, in parts, delves into how he responded to political and social events such as wars, hippies, and race (Avedon shot the first black woman ever to appear in Harper’s bazaar). These parts were my favourite, because they expanded upon the way fashion is reflective of a time and place, of history and politics.
Most importantly, the book depicts the curiosity in and passion for the human race that Richard Avedon explored through his camera lens and through fashion, a word that, at some point, meant something more to society than sexist magazines and reality TV. The average reader of WORN (though, let’s face it, could a WORN reader really be average?) knows hat fashion is important and relevant to society, and this is something Avedon helped prove. In the same way that Avedon articulated through photography what I love about fashion but could never express, Avedon Fashion 1944 – 2000 articulates just what I could never pinpoint about his photos.
By Richard Avedon, with texts by Carol Squiers, Vince Aletti, and Philippe Garner, and Willis Hartshorn – Published by Abrams
reviewed by Tavi Gevinson (originally published in Worn Fashion Journal Issue 10)