A huge thank you to all who have contributed to the discussion of Avedon’s ‘Observations’. We have compiled an archive of the posts below for future reference and will also be listed under the reading list page.
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.
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.
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
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!
Author Richard Avedon, with comments by Truman Capote
Publisher Simon & Schuster, 1959
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.’
Let us know your thoughts by using the hashtag #photobc in Twitter or share links and blog posts in to comment section below.
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!)