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.

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

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

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)