Katja Anderson on Richard Avedon’s ‘Observations’

Shortly after our first post on Avedon’s ‘Observations’, Katja Anderson got in touch to offer her own contribution to this months book, and we are really pleased she did: below is Katja’s piece which offers background, comment, deconstruction and a few ‘behind the scenes’ facts, a great read. (Don’t have a copy of ‘Observations’? – Take a look at our video)

Katja Anderson – Richard Avedon’s ‘Observations’

In 1959, lovers of photography and popular fiction alike were eagerly awaiting the publication of Observations, a collaborative effort between Richard Avedon and Truman Capote.  Avedon had taken the photographs, all portraits, an interesting departure for a man known primarily as a fashion photographer.  Capote, an old friend, was asked to write the text, while Alexey Brodovitch, then the former art director of Harper’s Bazaar and the man who had made certain Avedon would work for the publication, was responsible for the layout and cover art.  It was an interesting time for anyone associated with Harper’s Bazaar, which included Capote.  While never a staff writer, he had written an article when in his early twenties, a relatively obscure writer of short stories.  The fiction editor had sent him to New Orleans, accompanied by Henri Cartier-Bresson.  Capote commented: “I’ve never worked so hard and I never want to again.”

Somerset Maugham, 1958 ©RICHARD AVEDON

Harper’s Bazaar had some of the most talented people in the business on the masthead, ranging from Brokovitch to the brilliant editor-In chief Carmel Snow; Avedon later claimed that everything he knew he had learned from her.  She hired him, Brodovitch having sung his praises.  Avedon was twenty-two, a high school dropout who served his country during World War II by working as a photographer, using his Rolleiflex (a going away present from his father) to take one I. D. photograph after another for two years. After returning to New York, he enrolled at the New School, where he was taught by Brodovitch.  Brodovitch, struck by similarities between Avedon’s work and that of Martin Munkasci, an eminent  photographer on the Harper’s Bazaar payroll.  It was the real reason Carmel Snow hired him.  Both men depicted models smiling, laughing, exceptionally energetic, constantly in motion (as Avedon himself was).

Ceasre Zavattini, 1958 ©RICHARD AVEDON

Diana Vreeland was another brilliant member of staff, a fact that understandably evaded Avedon when they first laid eyes on one another.  As he recalled many years later: “Vreeland returned to her desk, looked up at me for the first time and said, ‘Aberdeen, Aberdeen, doesn’t it make you want to cry?”  He continued with: “Well, it did. I went back to Carmel Snow and said, ‘I can’t work with that woman. She calls me Aberdeen.’ And Carmel Snow said, ‘You’re going to work with her.’”  It was the beginning of a forty-year professional relationship, as well as a close friendship.  Avedon and Vreeland inspired the Audrey Hepburn film Funny Face, Dick Avedon hired as adviser, helping Fred Astaire portray his alter-ego Dick Avery.

That was in 1956; the film was released the following year. Avedon and Capote had been friends for years (“Dickiboo”). Near-exact contemporaries, both attained
fame early, Capote with his bestselling first novel, Avedon as a photographer, sufficiently well known for Life magazine to publish page after page of his portraits of Broadway stars, referring to him by surname. But the photographs were lacklustre. Good enough for a widely circulated magazine aimed at the average American, but not Avedon. By the early Fifties, his style had changed dramatically by eliminating every superfluous detail, as well as exploiting the Rolleiflex, capable of producing “a hallucinatory sharpness.”

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, 1957 ©RICHARD AVEDON

Avedon was as driven, as intense as Capote was relaxed. He continued to work on portraiture, placing subjects against a background of medium or lighter hue.  By 1957, if not earlier, he had become skilled at saying exactly the right thing to elicit an emotional response. Everyone, particularly celebrities, wore masks in public and Avedon was determined that the masks would, if not fall off completely, at least slip.  His portrait of Marilyn Monroe exposed a lost, vulnerable woman, oblivious to her blonde beauty and highly sexual presence. Perhaps the expression was fleeting, perhaps not, but the challenge for Avedon was to capture it on film as quickly as possible, not to mention eliciting it; while Avedon sought to have good relationships with his models, even taking the trouble to discover the food and music they liked, a celebrity sitter was a very different matter. Usually, there was no relationship between celebrity and photographer, and while Avedon which buttons to press as far as the models were concerned (he tended to use the same models over and over) there was no such luxury with a stranger, no matter how famous.   Sessions were brief, about ten minutes long, so Avedon would ask a provocative question. Or make a statement certain to elicit an emotional response.  While photographing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he casually mentioned a taxi driver hitting a dog earlier. The masks slipped, if only for a moment; Avedon clicked away on the Rolleiflex and revealed the Windsors as the sad, tired couple they had become.

Katherine Hepburn, 1955 and Bridget Bardot, 1959 ©RICHARD AVEDON

Brigitte Bardot was another matter, merely looking at the viewer, too characteristically languid to be surprised.  Marella Agnelli was positively tranquil, serenely gazing into the camera, the only sign of life in her limpid, faintly glowing eyes. Including her portrait in Observations was surprising, as was that of  American social figure Barbara ‘Babe’ Paley.  Both Marella and Babe were best known to those who read fashion magazines and gossip columns. And there was little room to spare in the book;  images fought for space. By 1959, Avedon had such an impressive body of work (in terms of quality as well as quantity) that rejection was rather more common than inclusion.  As Brodovitch was responsible for the layout, one suspects he advised his former protege.  One suspects, too, that Capote pressed for the portraits of Marella and Babe (two of his closest friends) to be chosen.  A travel diary kept by a seventeen-year-old Grand Tourist inspired his text, likening the women to swans.  A lovely, exceptionally graceful image, but one reads on.  Thanks to a wealthy man, “…a husband, a father”, these women created an illusion of beauty, the ‘swan illusion’, a substitute for the real thing, so powerful, so convincing that everyone who lays eyes on the swans is convinced as well. A backhanded compliment if there ever was one, but one with more than a grain of truth, as is the case with many observations.

Katja Anderson

#fromthelibrary – At Coventry University

The Photo Book Club’s Matt Johnston is currently residing in the Midlands, England, and so making use of the excellent photography section in the Coventry University library. Starting shortly, Matt will be posting some of the books found on the shelves of the library along with a brief synopsis under the headline and hashtag #fromthelibrary. As well as this online post, Matt will be meeting with students and holding informal discussions on these books, and the various books that students will bring to the sessions.

As with everything on the Photo Book Club we would love to get your thoughts and discussion on the books. You can use the hashtag #photobc on Twitter, or use the comments section below this post.

And if you want to see one of the #fromthelibrary books given a thorough look by the Photo Book Club and community, let us know!

Erik Palmer on the Frank/Avedon Connection

Erik Palmer, creative director of Vico Collective and teacher of communication theory at Portland State added another great comment, this time to Wayne’s personal observation.

As the end of the month draws near, I think it is also worth reflecting further on the creative and personal connections between Avedon and Robert Frank. As Wayne mentions, and as best narrated in Jane Livingstone’s book on the New York School, Avedon and Frank both worked for and studied with Brodovitch in the 1940s and 50s, although Avedon certainly had a closer relationship with the mentor.

As I was working on my dissertation, I spent a lot of time paging through old bound issues of Harper’s Bazaar in my university library, and I found a lot of product still lifes and other commercially motivated images bylined to Frank.

But I think it is most interesting to consider the relationship between The Americans and Avedon’s In The American West. Although the approach to photography of the two books could hardly be more visually distinct, I believe that Avedon set out to put his own mark on the kind of photographic grand tour that Frank originally perfected.


Both explored the west and sought to tell its story. And both told a controversial story of the failure of American ideals. Both were criticized for the perceived ugliness of their vision. Avedon photographed Frank and his wife (June Leaf, in what I think is a hidden gem among Avedon’s white background portraits) in the late 70s, and I suspect that their encounter was fresh on Avedon’s mind when he set out on his Western project.

Erik Palmer

Observations – A Closer Look

At the age of 17, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) joined the merchant marineʼs photographic section in 1940, where he would spend much of his time producing personnel identification photographs, and occasionally document shipwrecks. Following his discharge from service in 1944, Avedon found a job as a photographer in a New York department store, before Alexey Brodovitch — who Avedon had studied under in his Design Laboratory at the New School of Social Research — hired the 22 year-old as a staff photographer at Harperʼs Bazaar in 1945, where he would be the youngest member of the Russian emigres team.

This appointment would mark the beginning of the creative collaboration between the
inspirational art director, who did much to introduce modern graphic design aesthetics, and modernist European photography to the United States, and the photographer, that
culminated in the publication of ʻObservationsʼ in 1959.

One of the characteristicʼs of Brodovitchʼs design style, was his use of white space on the
editorial pages of Harperʼs Bazaar and his other projects, including ʻPortfolio,ʼ and this
influence is seen in Avedonʼs photography when he adopted the seamless white background in his fashion photography, for which he first became known, and latterly his
portrait work to.

Throughout his career, Avedon was a restless chronicler of our time, that led John Lahr to
write in ʻThe Times,ʼ ʻNo one has given a nation a more wide-ranging, disciplined
photographic document of itself,ʼ which is well reflected in the 150 pages that make up
ʻObservationsʼ which includes portraits of Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Arthur Miller, Picasso, Jacques Cousteau, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Judy Garland, Igor Stravinsky, Katherine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Gloria Swanson, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Buster Keaton, Georgia OʼKeefe, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Truman Capote, amongst many other key people of the 20th century.

Katherine Hepburn, 1955 and Bridget Bardot, 1959 ©RICHARD AVEDON

A remark made by Avedon in the 1970s reflects this restless nature, ʻIf a day goes by
without my doing something related to photography, itʼs as though Iʼve neglected
something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.ʼ

For a photographer to produce during their career more than one exceptional book — a
volume that sets new standards — is a rarity, Avedon is one of those exceptions. In 1964,
he collaborated with the writer James Baldwin, to create ʻNothing Personalʼ (Atheneum),
which was designed by art director Marvin Israel (a good friend of Diane Arbus), and whilst ʻNothing Personalʼ isnʼt quite of the standard of ʻObservations,ʼ it signalled Avedonʼs commitment to the book format, and in 1985, he published his sixth book, ʻIn the American West 1979-1984,ʼ (Harry N. Abrams) designed by Elizabeth Avedon, who also produced ʻPortraitsʼ (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1976) and ʻPhotographs 1947-1977ʼ (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1978).

ʻObservationsʼ is unquestionably a beautifully conceived work of great importance, and as I mentioned earlier in the month, is included in Andrew Rothʼs superb reference ʻThe Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the 20th Century (PPP Editions, 2001), but ʻIn the American West 1979-1984,ʼ is Avedonʼs second great masterpiece.

Wayne Ford

Observations – A Personal Reflection

This first personal reflection is from Wayne Ford, we would love to hear yours, especially if you have seen Observations for the first time from our video. Feel free to add it in the comment section for it to be posted here, or email mail@photobookclub.org

Wayne Ford

I first encountered the work of Richard Avedon through the art direction of Russian émigré Alexey Brodovitch (1898-1971), as a young graphic design student in the early 1980s. As my interest in editorial design grew, Brodovitch who was art director of ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ for almost a quarter of a century (1934-1958), became central to my studies.

Brodovitch was instrumental in introducing the ‘modern’ graphic design style that emerged through a number of art and design movements in Europe in the 1920s to the United States, in addition to which as Andy Grundberg writes, ‘Brodovitch is virtually the model for the modern magazine art director. he did not simply arrange photographs, illustrations and type on the page; he took an active role in conceiving and commissioning all forms of graphic art, and he specialised in discovering and showcasing young and unknown talent.’

Having arrived in New York in 1930, Brodovitch would regularly commission the likes of Bill Brandt, Brassai, Henri-Cartier-Bresson and Man Ray, his first design assistant was the young Irving Penn, and the list of photographers that he mentored in his long career, reads like a who’s who of twentieth century photography, Lillian Bassman, Robert Frank, Lisette Model, and of course Richard Avedon.

The copies of Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar that I own are well thumbed, the mix of unmatched design and art direction, continually draws me back, as does my copy of ‘Observations’ for Avedon’s immensely powerful portraits, and also because the book itself was designed by Brodovitch.

Note: A small piece of trivia, it is well known that Fred Astaire’s role as a photographer in the film ‘Funny Face’ (1957), is styled upon Avedon, but the films art director is called ‘Dovitch’ reflecting the pairs influence on the world of popular culture during the period.

The Photo Book Club World Map: An Update

We started the Photo Book Club World Map last Tuesday in an aim to create a comprehensive list of the best places to get your photobook fix – in physical stores.

Since then we have received hundreds of suggestions creating a map that currently comprises over 110 of the best stores, galleries and museum bookshops to browse and by photobooks and zines.

The Photo Book Club World Map

A huge thank you to all who have emailed, tweeted and posted their suggestions to this crowd-sourced resource as well as the PDN, Conscientious, Hey Mammoth and FlakPhoto who mentioned the project to their own followers. It was also great being able to utilise Andy Adams’ Flak Photo Network for the first time to get feedback from a 1700+ strong group of engaging photographers, educators and writers. To be able to tap into such a valuable community resulted in a much more complete picture of photobook stores around the world.

As mentioned above, the map currently stands at over 110 stores, but i’m sure there are many more: so please keep sending suggestions via email, twitter or in the comments section and they shall be added with a credit.
I have color coded stores in different parts of the world as well as using pins to represent highly concentrated areas, if you have any ideas on how we can improve usability – just let me know.

Now all that is left is for someone  generous  to send me on a world tour – stopping off at each store and buying a different photobook! I’ll even buy the books myself.

Matt Johnston

Richard Avedon: Books

‘Observations’ doesn’t have the lineage of Frank’s ‘The Americans’, but we had some very positive feedback on including other books by Robert Frank and so have compiled the following resource for Richard Avedon:

Other books by Richard Avedon

Where possible, Amazon links have been provided


May’s book is… Eugene Richard’s ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’

Were still looking Richard Avedon’s ‘Observations’ throughout April but a heads up:
Next month for the first user suggested month, we will be looking at Eugene Richards ‘Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue’ put forward by Jags Parbha.
Do you have a copy?

More to follow at the beginning of May

Eugene Richards
Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue

Text from publisher Aperture books
This is a compelling portrait of three communities blighted by drugs and isolation: East New York, North Philadelphia, and the Red Hook housing projects in Brooklyn, New York. With a chilling and informative afterword by Dr. Stephen W. Nicholas, a pediatric AIDS physician in Harlem, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue reveals how first steps toward solutions to overcome the drug trade have actually contributed to public denial and further isolation of the trapped communities. Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue is a history of our times, a terrifying document that will educate us and promote dialogue.

“Eugene Richards’s wrenching photographic study of the culture of cocaine in three inner-city neighborhoods gives faces to some of the victims of addiction. It provides a shocking and heartrending picture of the damage inflicted by the drug.”

–Charles Hagen, The New York Times

“Eugene Richards’s seventh book, Cocaine True, Cocaine Blue, reaffirms his position as the premier chronicler of the dark side of American life ˜ he is the true heir to the mantle of the legendary W. Eugene Smith.”

American Photo

Copies of this book are still fairly easy to get hold of online and in some good shops (Abe Books link, Amazon link)

Video: Richard Avedon’s ‘Observations’

When we started looking at Avedon’s ‘Observations’ we mentioned that we would produce a video for those who could not get hold of a copy themselves. A video to show Avedon’s images, their layout, sequencing and so on. You can see the video embedded below, and as always we look forward to hearing your thoughts and suggestions.

Richard Avedon – Observations from Photo Book Club on Vimeo.

Note: Due to a family emergency our video producer has been unable to create this video, and so for now a rather dogeared copy that is my own (including absence of p84-5) has been photographed this morning. Our apologies. Matt

The Photo Book Club World Map

We would love to create a comprehensive map of all the best places to buy photobooks and zines around the world and so are asking for your help!

Let us know where the best place to buy photography books and zines are near you. We will add them to the map with your comments and a thanks.

email: mail@photobookclub.org
twitter: @photobookclub
hashtag: #photobc

(The map will always be available for reference from the Resources page of this site)

You can see the shops we have already placed by viewing the map below or click the link to open in google.

View The Photo Book Club World Map in a larger map