- About the Author
- ACT I:
- How it All Began
- The Job Begins
- That First Year
- Avedon's Earlier Style
- The 49th Street Studio
- A Milestone is Reached
- Think Pink – The Making of Funny Face
- Our Personal Relationship
- Farewell, For Now
- ACT II:
- Return to Avedon
- The 58th Street Studio
- In Cold Blood
- Photographing the First Astronauts
- Teaching Others
- Avedon's First Major Exhibition
- The Paris Collections
- Those Clairol Trips
- Stormy Pink at a Seaside Ranch
- Defiling a Castle in Spain
- Nothing Personal
- Leaving Avedon
- The Avedon Paradox
- Avedon's Manhattan
- Darkness and Light
- On Being an Assistant Photographer
- Avedon's Other Studios
- Avedon's Cameras
- Why 8x10?
- Painting with Light
- Those Fabulous B&W Prints
- Advertising Made it All Possible
- Fred Thomas and His Wondrous Toys
- Cast of Characters
AVEDON'S EARLIER STYLE
Those trademark stark, ultra-sharp figures against a white background for which he is now famous were not always Richard Avedon's style. Indeed, back in the 1940s and 1950s his work was often quite theatrical and made use of what he later described as "exquisite" lighting along with soft focus, blur, and grain. He even used props and costumes.
The soft focus was achieved quite simply with the 8"x10" Deardorff camera — he just smeared a bit of Vaseline around the edge of the 12" Goerz-Dagor lens. I know. I had to clean the optics after the session. I have never known him to commit this crime to a Rolleiflex lens, however. With Rolleis he created blur by jerking the camera during exposure.
Another trick he had at softening pictures was to lay a sheet of very thin tissue paper over the photographic paper being exposed under an enlarger, with the section he wanted sharp cut out, of course. The paper was moved a bit during the exposure. He also at times tilted the easel to introduce distortion. Graininess was occasionally produced by the use of Kodak's long-forgotten (but hardly missed) Super XX black & white film, overexposed and overdeveloped. These techniques were only used during those early years, and were later abandoned.
Avedon was no purist. He had no compunctions against darkroom cropping and image manipulation, nor against heavy airbrush retouching.
Lighting at the Madison Avenue studio was either under the skylight courtesy of the sun, tented in with reflector panels, or by using tungsten lamps. These consisted of two 5,000-watt bucket floods, three 1,500-watt floodlamps, and two 750-watt keg lights. All of these were on stands with wheels, and all were balanced at 3,200° Kelvin for use with Type B color films. It was several years later that he began using strobes.
Avedon's fashion photographs implied a narrative story, a major departure from the rather cold, aloof and formal fashion photography common at that time. He always took special care to show every detail of the garments while still introducing blur and other creative effects.
Unlike most magazine and advertising photographers, Avedon did not usually knuckle under to the demands of his clients. Even though he took literally hundreds of exposures on a job, he only let the editors and art directors see the few that he chose for them.
One exception to this happened at the Madison Avenue studio around 1954. The choices that he sent to Harper's Bazaar from a fashion session did not show the garment quite the way the editors thought it should. So, into the studio marched the fearsome fashion editor Diana Vreeland (1903-89), demanding to see the outtakes. Avedon was not there, and I couldn't stop her as she invaded the darkrooom and rummaged through the garbage bin where wet, chemically-drenched rejects went to die. She found a pose that she liked, screamed Aha!, then ordered "Print This!" When Avedon returned I informed him about the incident, and he then told studio manager Frank Finocchio to make finish prints of her choice.
During my first years with Avedon, a period of 53 months from September 1952 through 1956, he produced no fewer than 26 covers for Harper's Bazaar, one for virtually every other issue. The only other photographer rivaling this record was Louise Dahl-Wolfe (1895-1989), who worked for Bazaar from 1936 through 1958, and was a great influence on him.
Avedon was equally prodigious with inside pages, having several of them devoted to his fashion and portrait photography in practically every issue.
Other well-known photographers who worked for Bazaar during this period included Lillian Bassman (1917-2012), Paul Himmel (1914-2009), Steve Colhoun, Karen Radkai, Pellegrini, Gleb Derujinsky, John Engstead (1912-84), Tom Palumbo (1921-2008), Toni Frissell (1907-88), and Francesco Scavullo (1921-2004). Travel and reportage photography was done mostly by Henri Cartier-Bresson (1908-2004) and Brassai (1899-1984).
Although Avedon was already famous for his striking fashion photography, it was his commercial advertising work that paid the bills and made the whole operation possible. At that time, in the early 1950s, we probably did more advertising jobs than anything else, with clients like Revlon, Helena Rubinstein, DuPont, Maidenform, and Hertz Rent-a-Car. He was a smart businessman who really embraced advertising work, putting as much care into it as he did for the more creative jobs. There was no "artsy" pretentiousness here.
Portraiture also evolved during this period, especially with a growing concern for social problems and political awareness. As early as 1952 he was already making statements through portraiture; witness his portrait of Charlie Chaplin.
In this, he was much more of a director than a photographer, often capturing more about his subjects than they remembered revealing. He did not always succeed at this, as his January 1961 portraits of President-Elect John F. Kennedy and Mrs. Kennedy demonstrate.
During the time that I assisted him, and prior to that, virtually all of his portraiture was done with a Rolleiflex camera. It was only later that he switched to the much larger 8x10 view camera although he had long used it for fashion and advertising photography.
The critical reception given his 1964 book Nothing Personal caused him to cut back on portraiture for a few years, as he rethought his priorities. After that he came back with a vengeance, and defined his signature minimalist aesthetic.
PHOTOGRAPHING THE FIRST ASTRONAUTS
It was a busy day on March 30th 1961 as we did a fashion session for Harper's Bazaar and some reportage for a future project. Still tired the next morning, we dashed off to the airport for an early morning flight to Newport News, Virginia to photograph the three original astronauts at Langley Field, home of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The astronauts were:
- Alan Shepard (1923-98), the first American into space, riding the Mercury-Redstone 3 on May 5, 1961.
- Gus Grissom (1926-67), the second American into space, riding the Mercury-Redstone 4 on July 21, 1961.
- John Glenn (b.1921), first to orbit the Earth, aboard Mercury-Atlas 6 on February 20, 1962.
Since this was on a military base, Avedon had the good sense to bring along supermodel and actress Suzy Parker to keep the boys interested. By this time Suzy had already starred in four major Hollywood movies, one of which — Kiss them for Me, co-starring Cary Grant and Jayne Mansfield — was a comedy about Navy pilots on leave. Suzy was by now a favorite among the military and later made another film, Flight From Ashiya, along a similar but more serious theme.
Upon arrival at Newport News I rented a car and the three of us drove out to the Air Force Base. We were met at the gate by a colonel who discussed the arrangements and then escorted us to the mess hall for lunch, where Suzy was the center of attention. Was she ever the center of attention!
This should have been a very easy job as Avedon and I set up a white paper background and Balcar studio strobes in a hangar, right next to a practice Mercury capsule. Then things went terribly wrong.
A huge thunderstorm was brewing outside, with lightning striking around the hangar. I turned on the strobes and BANG! No more electricity. Darkness prevailed. Whether this was the fault of the strobes or the storm, I don't know. Astronaut Alan Shepard came to the rescue and showed me how to tap into emergency circuits. That did the trick, and the session continued without further problems.
But there were problems outside. The storm had become so severe that all flights were cancelled and we were stuck there. Avedon had appointments in New York the next day, so we decided to drive instead. Since he was a terrible driver, Suzy and I agreed to take turns at the wheel heading up through Washington D.C. (the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel had not yet been built), Maryland, Delaware, and finally New Jersey. The storm continued all the way. Very late that night the lit-up skyline of Manhattan came into view as we entered the Lincoln Tunnel. Home at last.
Avedon's connection with the space program actually began in late 1959 (while I was still in the Army), when he did fashion photography at Cape Canaveral, Florida. It continued when he, his young son John, and I were given a private tour of Cape Canaveral, including the control rooms, in early 1962. This was before the base was opened for public touring.
The April 1965 issue of Harper's Bazaar was filled with space references, including a head shot of supermodel Jean Shrimpton in a genuine NASA space helmet with a starry background by artist Roy Lichtenstein. That same spacesuit accompanied me to London in January 1965, where Beatle Paul McCartney posed in it for the same issue of Bazaar.
STORMY PINK AT A SEASIDE RANCH
One of the most enjoyable locations for fashion photography lies just 110 miles east of New York City, on Long Island near Montauk. Deep Hollow Ranch (#1 on the map), america's oldest cattle ranch, was founded in 1658 — and is still going strong as a very private hideaway for equestrian pleasures by the seaside. Avedon used it several times as a setting for both editorial fashion and commercial advertising.
The most exciting of these was on July 7, 1963, when he shot the spectacular image of Suzy Parker in a chiffon dress leading a frightened and excited white stallion through the foaming surf off Montauk Point to promote Revlon's latest lipstick and fingernail polish color. In the dead of the night. For six hours. With raging water all around. And with an 8"x10" view camera for maximum clarity. What a production that was!
Supermodel Suzy Parker, the gal in the picture, speaks about the Revlon Stormy Pink job: "We worked at night (double the fee) off Montauk Point, in the ocean, and I had to hold a stallion. We really did that. It was very dangerous because it was windy and the pebbles kept rolling beneath the horse's feet, and I'm trying to hold him down. We worked on that for almost six hours in the middle of the night, in the middle of the ocean (well, not quite), and I was in a chiffon dress. I think the reason I was such a good model wasn't that I was such a particular beauty or anything, but that I was as strong as a horse. And that occasion proved it."
Revlon's ad copy was as purple as the skies were dark. Some samples: "Revlon unleashes an Angry Young Pink — the killer color of the year!," "Stormy Pink, a wild-and-arrogant pink...cross bred with red...," "It's the runaway trend of our time. Why fight it?"
At my end, the technical problems were severe, especially in seeing to it that nobody got electrocuted. There was of course no place to plug in the powerful Balcar strobe needed to get enough depth of field for the 300mm lens on slow 8"x10" Ektachrome sheet film. I solved this by borrowing a Jeep from the ranch and mounting a gasoline generator on it along with the flash head on a tall pole. This I drove out into the surf (#2 on the map). I was concerned about the sync wire to the camera and the fact that both Avedon and another assistant were standing in water, but they never got so much as a tingle.
The resultant ad appeared quickly all over America, produced by Revlon's ad agency, Norman, Craig & Kummel. In the November 1963 issue of Harper's Bazaar the tall ad ran sideways, covering pages 14-15.
Avedon used the Montauk ranch at other times, including several days in May 1960 for beach fashions; these appeared in the September 1960 issue of Harper's Bazaar, pages 242-249. Swipe the map above to see a photo of me with a horse from this job.
It must be noted that Avedon was quite familiar with horses and often rode in New York's Central Park. I rode with him once, across the Arizona desert at dawn in November 1962. After fellow assistant Jim Houghton and I established our own studio in late 1965 we also worked out of Deep Hollow Ranch a few times.
Avedon surely loved Montauk, since about 1980 (some 15 years after I left) he purchased a 7.5-acre mini-compound (#3 on the map) on a desolate cliff overlooking the sea, less than two miles southwest of the historic 1795 lighthouse (#4 on the map) at Montauk Point.
Featured in the 1995 PBS documentary Darkness and Light, it had six bedrooms, a studio, a stable, an orchard, a pool, and gardens. It was here that he played country gentleman by growing apples and raising chickens for the next 20 years.
Deep Hollow Ranch is located about three miles beyond the town of Montauk, on State Route 27, just east of East Lake Drive, on the left. The beach is nearby, on the Atlantic Ocean. Check it out at www.deephollowranch.com.
Quotations from Suzy Parker were taken from Fire and Ice — the Story of Charles Revson, by Andrew Tobias, © 1976. Other text and map © 2012 by Earl Steinbicker.
Most of Richard Avedon's life was spent living and working on that exciting and glorious island called Manhattan in New York City, U.S.A.
Although he traveled extensively throughout the world, he always remained a New Yorker at heart. Many of the places associated with him still exist while others have yielded to the inevitable march of progress. The map above and text below describe places that can still be seen and even experienced as well as pointing out those that are but memories.
For the ambitious among you, this list is organized as a do-it-yourself tour on foot or by bus or taxi. Or you might just go to see a few, or even just read about them.
Touch map in upper left to fill the screen, then slide a finger from right to left to see photos of the places. Numbers in parentheses correspond to numbers on the map.
From an early age through all of his teens Richard lived with his parents in a spacious apartment at 55 East 86th Street (1), on the uptown side between Madison and Park avenues. Built in 1924 and fifteen stories high, this building still stands and looks much as it did when the Avedon family moved in during the early 1930s. His father had been a prosperous merchant throughout the 1920s, but the Great Depression put them in reduced circumstances although they continued to live well as this rather exclusive address suggests.
From here it is only a short stroll to Fifth Avenue and down a few blocks to the magnificent complex of imposing buildings known as the Metropolitan Museum of Art (2), the largest such institution in the Western Hemisphere. The young Avedon frequented these galleries in his quest for elegance and beauty, which he found especially in the works of ancient Egypt, the Etruscans, and such modern artists as Amedeo Modigliani. These highly stylized images feature simplicity of line and form in the human figure, which deeply influenced his later photography.
From September to November of 1978 the museum held a major retrospective of Avedon's fashion photography between the years 1947 through 1977, which later traveled to other museums in Dallas, Atlanta, and Tokyo. There is a picture from this time of him dancing down the museum steps, arms outstretched, under the huge banner reading "Avedon." In 2002 the Met held another major exhibition with a huge banner above the steps reading "Richard Avedon Portraits."
The Metropolitan Museum presently has dozens of Avedon prints in their permanent collection.
Another nearby gallery that featured Avedon's work is the fortress-like Whitney Museum of American Art (3) on the southeast corner of Madison Avenue and 75th Street. The 1994 exhibition there, which ran from late March through late June, was billed as "Richard Avedon: Evidence 1944-1994." Unlike most of his shows, this one focused on the unity of purpose between his portraiture, reportage, and fashion photography, and celebrated his profound contribution to the history of the art as well as his relentless quest for self-knowledge.
A further stroll down Fifth Avenue, with Central Park to your right, brings you to The Frick Collection (4). This gated, block-long mansion has its entrance on 70th Street. As a boy, young Richard would often visit here with his mother, admiring the classical works of 14th-to-19th-century European art, furnishings, and decorations. He was enthralled by the Fragonards, the Gainsboroughs, the Goyas, the Reynolds, and especially by the Rembrandts. Through these portraits he developed the belief that served him so well in later years — that faces are the windows to the soul.
Continuing down Fifth Avenue alongside the park takes you past locations where, as a young man, he witnessed the most innovative fashion photographer of the 1930s, Martin Munkácsi, at work. Avedon also used this spot for his famous 1965 portrait of singer Bob Dylan. Steps at 64th Street lead down to the Arsenal (5) of the late 1840s, a necessary stop for all photographers doing commercial work in the city's parks as this is where the permits are issued. It is also the entrance to the Central Park Wildlife Conservation Center, formerly known as the Zoo.
Now it's a lovely short stroll under shady trees to Grand Army Plaza at 60th Street. Avedon's first studio was a block from here, at 640 Madison Avenue (6) between 60th and 59th streets. The block-long, two-story building was torn down around 1955 and replaced with the present unremarkable office structure, but back in the 1930s it contained the skylit studio of fashion photographer George Platt Lynes. This became Richard Avedon's studio in 1946 after Lynes moved to Hollywood. Avedon remained there until sometime in 1954, and it was here that I first began assisting him in September of 1952.
Across 57th Street, at 40 West near the Avenue of the Americas, is the Marlborough Gallery (7). In 1975 this was the venue of Avedon's exhibition "Portraits: 1969-1975," notable for its huge prints and consistent use of his signature white background as part of his final, mature style.
Back on Madison Avenue, at the northwest corner of 56th Street once stood an old office building at Number 572 (8), whose site is now part of the immense 590 Madison Building. This was home to both Harper's Bazaar and Town & Country magazines, both of which Avedon worked for extensively from 1945 through 1965. Back in the 1940s and 50s this was also the lair of Alexey Brodovitch, the influential art director who first discovered his talent and later became his chief mentor.
Avedon's first job as a photographer was in 1944 at the Bonwit Teller (9) fashion department store on Fifth Avenue at the northeast corner of 56th Street, now replaced by the Trump Tower.
Continue down Fifth to 53rd Street. Between here and Madison Avenue, on the north side of 53rd, is one of New York's most delightful hidden gems. Paley Park (10) was a gift to the people of New York by one of Avedon's friends, William S. Paley, the founder and long-time C.E.O. of CBS.
This urban oasis of 1967 sports a 20-foot-high waterfall spanning the width of the park as a backdrop to the airy trees and lightweight furniture at which visitors can relax and perhaps have lunch. The story goes that Paley, who loved hots dogs, could not find suitable ones from the local sidewalk vendors. To solve this dilemma he purchased the former Stork Club building, tore it down, created the park, and had a snack bar installed that sells simple foods at reasonable prices. It's a delightful place for a quick lunch. I would imagine that Avedon ate here a few times with his friend Paley, although this would have been after I left.
Turn west on 53rd Street to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) (11), one of the world's preeminent cultural institutions. Founded in 1929 in temporary quarters, its present building dates from 1939 and has been substantially altered and enlarged over the years. MoMA was a pioneer in recognizing photography as a fine art in the same league with painting and sculpture. Avedon had a one-man show here in 1974 that consisted of touching portraits of his dying father, Jacob Israel Avedon, taken during the last years of his life. The museum also has a large number of Avedon prints, both portraits and fashion, in its permanent collection.
Just west of the main entrance, and part of the same complex at Number 25, are the offices of the Richard Avedon Foundation. This organization is charged with maintaining Avedon's legacy through touring exhibitions around the world, through publications, and by providing prints to museums, libraries, and scholarly institutions. Visits can only be made by prior arrangements, and then only by researchers, scholars, and those on Foundation business.
Some of Avedon's major advertising clients were located nearby, at 488 Madison Avenue between 52nd and 51st streets. Once the home of Look Magazine, the building remains as it was although that publication is history. Another tenant here was the advertising agency Norman, Craig & Kummel, for whom Avedon did a great deal of work over the years on the Revlon, Maidenform, Schick, Chanel, Clairol, and Hertz accounts.
The International Center of Photography (12), on the Avenue of the Americas (Sixth Avenue) near the northwest corner of 43rd Street, was founded in 1974 and moved into the present galleries in 2000. Its major exhibition "Avedon Fashion 1944-2002" was held from May 15 through September 20, 2009. This was the most comprehensive exploration of Avedon's fashion photography ever attempted, and included some 175 photographs. Among these were both vintage and modern prints, original contact prints, and past issues of the magazines in which they appeared.
There's absolutely nothing to see toay, but the east side of Fifth Avenue at 39th Street was once the site of the Avedon Building (13), home to a ladies wear store known as Avedon's Fifth Avenue. Co-owned by Avedon's father and uncle, this fell victim to the Great Depression. The building was still there in the 1960s when he pointed it out to me as we were passing by, but has since been replaced by a nondescript structure.
The neighborhood around Madison Avenue north of 42nd Street was home to a great many advertising agencies, including several of Avedon's best clients such as BBD&O and J. Walter Thompson. Several of his suppliers were located in the former Grand Central Palace (14), a massive 1911 structure at 480 Lexington Avenue, between 46th and 47th streets. Sadly, this was torn down in 1963. Originally designed for exhibition spaces, it was home to a number of photography studios, Bernard Arkin Photo Supplies (Avedon's principal supplier), Modernage Photographic Services (which made many of his largest prints), and Harriet Woolen Retouching.
Avedon's second studio was at 203 East 49th Street (15), on the northeast corner of Third Avenue. Frank Finocchio, his studio manager at the time, and I first checked this place out in early 1954, arriving there on the old Third Avenue El. The spacious studio area was on the second floor of the historic 19th-century two-story building, above the famous Manny Wolf's Steakhouse. Although this restaurant is now called Smith & Wollensky's, today the structure looks almost exactly as it did in the 1950s. There were actually two studio rooms, the smaller one used by his associate photographer Bill Bell, and later by Hiro Wakabayashi.
Continue down 49th Street to First Avenue, cross it, and take the small street that leads uphill to 24 Beekman Place (16). When I first started with Avedon in 1952 he was living in a townhouse midway between 49th and 50th streets, on the west side of the place. That three-story house is long gone, replaced by a luxury apartment building.
Head uptown on First Avenue to East 58th Street and turn right. At the far end, overlooking the East River, is a small gated driveway called River View Terrace (17). Avedon and his family moved into a townhouse here on August 31, 1964 and were still living there when I left his employ.
By bus, cab, or even on foot, continue north on Sutton Place, passing under the Queensboro Bridge, after which it becomes York Avenue, to East 75th Street. Along the way you will pass, on the right, Rockefeller University, Cornell Medical Center, and the New York Hospital. The old carriage house at 407 East 75th Street was Avedon's final home and studio (18), which he purchased in 1970. A total of 7,000 square fet in size, it was put on sale in 2005 with an asking price of $6.75 million.
Head downtown on either Second or Lexington avenues to 65th Street, turning right to Park Avenue. The large old apartment building at 625 Park Avenue (19) was home to the Avedons from the late 1950s until the early 1960s. It looks exactly the same today. Their apartment occupied one-half of an upper floor; the other half was home to Madame Helena Rubinstein of cosmetics fame.
Saunter down Park Avenue, passing the Chase Bank on the southwest corner of 60th Street. This is where Avedon kept his money, and where he once sent me to borrow a $5,000 bill as a photo prop. With a wink in the eye, I assured the bank manager that we would not take a picture of it. The wink was returned.
A left turn on 58th Street takes you to the site of Avedon's third studio (20) at 110 East. He moved in here sometime in the late 1950s and remained until it was torn down in the late 1970s. The two studio rooms, offices, workrooms, and darkrooms were on the fifth floor, with both his and his representative's offices on the penthouse level. The latter rooms were used by Alexey Brodovitch for his classes, while the second studio room was used by associate photographer Hiro Wakabayashi.
The tour is over, and you will pass the site of Roger's Bar around the corner between 58th and 57th streets. This is where the sandwiches for the almost-daily studio lunches came from. Unfortunately, it is now a Starbucks.
Maps and text copyright © 2012 by Earl Steinbicker
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