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Byline: BY DAVID MICHAELIS
THE NOW OF AVEDON
As the 60s dawned, Richard Avedon was in crisis, wrestling with his role as America's national portraitist. Then he turned his eye to the futurethe youthquake, Pop art, the moon landing, racial integration, even reality TVand poured that prophetic vision into one indelible issue of Harper's Bazaar
Nineteen sixty-five! The Beatles in space suits!
The frug. The moon. English supermodel Jean Shrimptonthe first astronette! Luna, the first black supermodel. The New York of the youthquake, happenings, and underground movies, the freewheelin' Bob Dylan, Lew Alcindor, the high-school hoops phenomenon soon to be known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, plus a glossary of the latest lingo ( It's the whole bag! ), even Monti Rock III, the famous-for-being-famous hairdresser who claimed to have invented the entire 60s, but who turns out only to have been the first sighting of reality TV ...
All this in one issue of Harper's Bazaar the best of everything, the latest in art, fashion, music, writing, conceived of as a "passport to the off-beat side of Now," with the most coveted cover girl's face on the planet, winking through a pink space helmet: the hologram strip on Jean Shrimpton's long-lashed baby-blue eye actually flickered right at you!
All that! In April 1965the springtime of the 60s, well before the Summer of Love, before the great shocks of 1968 and 1969, and the disillusionments still ahead in civil rights, Vietnam, and Watergate. April 1965 was radiant with anticipationAmerica was preparing to marry the futureand the one man who could make the national wedding portrait was Richard Avedon.
He was the greatest and most influential portraitist of his time, who recorded every seismic tremor in a society that was changing, and fast. Having early stormed to power as the world's most commanding editorial fashion photographer, Avedon (whose fashion work can be seen at the Detroit Institute of Arts through January 17) was among Madison Avenue's highest-paid, most sought-after showmen, revered by clients like Revlon, DuPont, Cartier, Helena Rubinstein, and creating a body of commercial work that would come to include elaborate television spots in which he directed entire mini-plays for Chanel, Calvin Klein, and Versace. In his portraiture, meanwhilehis "deeper work," he called itAvedon refused to trade on his subjects' celebrity as a commodity: he took all people as works of art in themselves.
He rightly saw himself as a great reader of faces, zooming in on those facets of a subject that were "contradictory and at the same time connected." In each phase of his workfashion, advertising, portraiturehe varied the emphasis slightly to achieve certain effects, but no matter what the object of the photograph, his intensity and almost painful absorption in the subject remained a constant. No other photographer seemed to live so acutely in the moment or in his own images. "What I try to express of myself in my portraits is very often violent , very often a frightening or riotous element in myself... Sometimes I can make it happen in five minutes. Sometimes it can take me quite a long time. More often, quickly. But, I feel I do it by turning myself into what I want [the] portrait to be like."
FASHION PHOTOGRAPHY WAS YIELDING TO SOMETHING STARTLINGLY NEW: THE AUTEUR.
His big, handsome, dark head and lean, sinewy body made him powerfully attractive, indeed seductive, an almost wizardly presence. His eyes, fixed upon the subject of the moment, seemed those of a film noir detective. As soon as he picked up his Rolleiflex, or stood to the left of the big, spooky Brady-style view camera (vastly updated, with fast, ASA 400 filmeverything with Avedon was always Now, never remotely Then), he radiated mystery and energy in equal parts, a jittery, soul-piercing thrust behind every move. He sought to give as much as he took, though he took probably a little more than he gave. But because he made women look ravishing, and because glamour is a quality we ascribe to others, Avedon was uniquely enthralling in the way he kept the magic in the palm of his hand: You, too, could be Avedonian. He just had to like you.
"He was the charmer of all time," says his model and friend China Machado. "If he wanted to charm you, you didn't have a chance." Ruth Ansel, the former art director of Harper's Bazaar, remembers that "I never saw anybody work so hardseven days a weekwith a never-ending stream of energy. His energy level was unsurpassable, as was the level of seduction." Curiosity and playfulness were instruments of his power. "He had this extraordinarily winning personality," recalls Frederick Eberstadt, Avedon's friend and assistant. "Everybody fell. It was always the same: He had never met anyone he liked as much as he liked you. And you had never met anyone who was as much fun as Dick."
Charming Dick Avedonwhose life was actually so charmed as to pass from spontaneously tap-dancing, at age nine, like Fred Astaire, up the aisles of Radio City Music Hall after seeing a movie with his mother to watching Fred Astaire play him, as the fashion photographer Dick Avery, in Stanley Donen's 1957 musical, Funny Face. In the studio, though, he displayed two sidesone eager, delighted, cajoling, but the other controlling, proficient, businesslike. The model who yawned during a sitting was asked head-on if she'd had a late night. And when she lazily replied that, yes, she had, Avedon cut her to the quick: "Then why don't you go home and get some rest?" End of sitting.
If he was a stickler for professionalism, he was no cultist. When he called on subjects in the 60s, it wasn't Richard Avedon calling, it was the world calling. If he had a cult, it was not the culte du moi, it was the culte de toi: "Being with Dick was like being with another kid in the playground," said Lauren Hutton, Avedon's primary model in later years at Vogue. "There was a playful side of Dick," confirms China Machado. "He made everything an event."
For 20 years starting in 1945, the latest in editorial fashion photography had been whatever dove-like flight of fancy Avedon had just unleashed in Bazaar, where art director Alexey Brodovitch had hired him, then 22 and straight out of the merchant marine. In a glorious trinity with Carmel Snow as editor in chief and Diana Vreeland as fashion editor, Brodovitch was the dominant force in fashion journalism and advertising photography for the quarter-century 1934 to 1958. At Bazaar, so the story went, if Snow taught Avedon how to think, and Vreeland taught him how to feelor, anyway, to extend his intuitionBrodovitch taught him how to see. Avedon himself cast these three larger-than-life figures in mythic terms as "my new, chosen mother, father, and brilliant crazy aunt."
Brodovitch was "really very much like my father," Avedon reflected in later years. "Very withdrawn and disciplined, and very strong values. He gave no compliments."
But, under his tutelage, Avedon created multi-page Bazaar narratives …