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American photographer Richard Avedon was best known for his work in the fashion world and for his minimalist, large-scale character-revealing portraits.
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American photographer Richard Avedon was best known for his work in the fashion world and for his minimalist portraits. He worked first as a photographer for the Merchant Marines, taking identification photos. He then moved to fashion, shooting for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue, demanding that his models convey emotion and movement, a departure from the norm of motionless fashion photography.
Richard Avedon was born on May 15, 1923 in New York City. His mother, Anna Avedon, came from a family of dress manufacturers, and his father, Jacob Israel Avedon, owned a clothing store called Avedon's Fifth Avenue. Inspired by his parents' clothing businesses, as a boy Avedon took a great interest in fashion, especially enjoying photographing the clothes in his father's store. At the age of 12, he joined the YMHA (Young Men's Hebrew Association) Camera Club.
Avedon later described one childhood moment in particular as helping to kindle his interest in fashion photography: “One evening my father and I were walking down Fifth Avenue looking at the store windows,” he remembered. “In front of the Plaza Hotel, I saw a bald man with a camera posing a very beautiful woman against a tree. He lifted his head, adjusted her dress a little bit and took some photographs. Later, I saw the picture in Harper's Bazaar. I didn't understand why he'd taken her against that tree until I got to Paris a few years later: the tree in front of the Plaza had that same peeling bark you see all over the Champs-Elysees.”
Avedon attended DeWitt Clinton High School in New York City, where one of his classmates and closest friends was the great writer James Baldwin. In addition to his continued interest in fashion and photography, in high school Avedon also developed an affinity for poetry. He and Baldwin served as co-editors of the school's prestigious literary magazine, The Magpie, and during his senior year, in 1941, Avedon was named “Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools.” After graduating that summer, Avedon enrolled at Columbia University to study philosophy and poetry. However, he dropped out after only one year to serve in the United States Merchant Marine during World War II. As a Photographer's Mate Second Class, his main duty was taking identification portraits of sailors. Avedon served in the Merchant Marine for two years, from 1942 to 1944.
Upon leaving the Merchant Marine in 1944, Avedon attended the New School for Social Research in New York City to study photography under Alexey Brodovitch, the acclaimed art director of Harper's Bazaar. Avedon and Brodovitch formed a close bond, and within one year Avedon was hired as a staff photographer for the magazine. After several years photographing daily life in New York City, Avedon was assigned to cover the spring and fall fashion collections in Paris. While legendary editor Carmel Snow covered the runway shows, Avedon's task was to stage photographs of models wearing the new fashions out in the city itself. Throughout the late 1940s and early 1950s he created elegant black-and-white photographs showcasing the latest fashions in real-life settings such as Paris's picturesque cafes, cabarets and streetcars.
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