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


Links
www.richardavedon.com

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

Erik Palmer on Avedon’s ‘Observations’

Erik Palmer, creative director of Vico Collective and teacher of communication theory at Portland State, offered this great comment to Wayne Ford’s synopsis yesterday that we thought was deserving of it’s own post.

I own a battered copy of Observations, but had not looked at it in a couple of years. So, coming to it with fresh eyes, I think the first thing about the book, which we mostly take for granted, with our contemporary sensibility, is its very magazine-like architecture.

Viewing Observations from 2011, it’s hard to see how provocative it must have been to try to synthesize pop culture and high culture in a formal publication like a book, and in the way that Avedon and Alexey Brodovitch attempted here. Unlike a whole, unified, complete book, we have the joining of a number of not obviously related chapters, like magazine features: The Actors, The Singers, The Swans, The Couples, and so on. And then we have an even greater stylistic and thematic jump to Italy popped into the middle of this book.

Pages 74/75 The Italians ©RICHARD AVEDON 'Observations'

I don’t find the approach completely satisfying or successful. By comparison, I much prefer later Avedon books where he pursued a consistent formal approach, including the American West and Richard Avedon Portraits. These are the books where Avedon most clearly and successfully gives us what I want from him: the sense of confrontation that defined his white background portraiture.

Another important formal element that we see in Observations is the development of Avedon’s strategies of montage: his use of two images on facing pages to make implied claims of similarity or difference between the people pictured. Again, it seems obvious to our 21st-century media-saturated eyes that we should do this as photographic designers, but look for comparison at the techniques of sequencing and montage in The Americans.

Pages 146/147 ©RICHARD AVEDON, 'Observations'

Avedon’s pictures speak to each other and create higher orders of metaphorical meaning in a way distinct from Frank’s sequencing. Consider, for example, page 146, where Avedon joins photographs of Robert Oppenheimer and Martin Darcy in a similar stance, and that helps to inspire Capote’s analysis of appearance and virtue.

Erik Palmer

If you would like to write a guest post on the Photo Book Club, please contact mail@photobookclub.org

For those interested, Erik wrote a doctoral dissertation on Avedon’s work which can be accessed here (requires ProQuest subscription from your library)

Synopsis: Richard Avedon – Observations (With comments by Truman Capote)

A note…

This month’s book ‘Observations’ is not easily accessible in your local library, nor is it affordable to most. But we consider it to be more than worthy of a Photo Book Club discussion, and so next week we will post a video looking through the book, making sure this incredible book is available to view by as many fans as possible!

Title
Observations

Author
Richard Avedon, with comments by Truman Capote

Publisher
Simon & Schuster, 1959

IMAGE ©RICHARDAVEDON.COM

Overview

Like Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans,’ which we discussed last month in the Photo Book Club, American photographer Richard Avedon’s first book, ‘Observations,’ was published in 1959. And, like ‘The Americans’ it was included in Andrew Roth’s ‘The Book of 101 Books: Seminal Photographic Books of the 20th Century (PPP Editions, 2001), now itself a seminal work on the history of the photographic book.

Having begun to take photographs during the Second World War, where he served in the Merchant Marine, Avedon became chief photographer of ‘Harper’s Bazaar’ in the late 1940s, where he helped redefine and elevate fashion photography to an art form, frequently taking his models out of the studio.

But Avedon’s first book did not focus on his fashion work, but on his iconic and penetrating portraits. In the 150 pages that form ‘Observations,’ with comments by the great American writer Truman Capote, we encounter the likes of Charlie Chaplin, John Huston, Alfred Hitchcock, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Arthur Miller, Pablo Picasso, Marilyn Monroe, Mae West, Judy Garland, Igor Stravinsky, Katherine Hepburn, Brigitte Bardot, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Buster Keaton, and many others.

Reflecting upon Avedon’s oeuvre, Maria Morris Hambourg recently wrote ‘By dint of progressive challenges to himself, Richard Avedon has not only distilled photographic portraiture to its irreducible core, but has also produced an extended meditation on life, death, art, and identity. Laureate of the invisible reflected in physiognomy, Avedon has become our poet of portraiture.’

Wayne Ford

Get involved

Let us know your thoughts by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.

Coming next…

Next week we will post a video, showing the book in all it’s glory to those who do not own, or have access to a copy (which is most of us!)

The Americans – A Summary

A huge thank you to all who have dropped by and especially those who have contributed in the first month of the Photo Book Club, looking at Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.

Please continue to share any links and further chatter around Frank’s masterpiece as we will keep updating the blog to provide an even better archive of information for future reference.