Avedon's Photos Revolutionized Art Form

Richard Avedon, the celebrated photographer who revolutionized the art form over the last half-century, amassed a body of work that included lush fashion spreads in extravagant locations such as the pyramids of Egypt.

But Avedon went in another direction with his portrait work, shooting unsparing and often unflattering shots of subjects from Marilyn Monroe to Michael Moore.

Avedon died Friday at age 81 after suffering a brain hemorrhage last month while on assignment in San Antonio, Texas, for The New Yorker magazine. He had been taking pictures for a piece called "On Democracy," shooting politicians, delegates and citizens from around the country.

"We've lost one of the great visual imaginations of the last half century," said David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker.

Avedon's influence on photography was immense, and his fashion work helped create the era of supermodels such as Naomi Campbell and Cindy Crawford.

During his career, Avedon worked for such photograph-driven publications as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, and served as The New Yorker's first staff photographer. His skill also earned him another title: He was reputed to be the world's highest-paid photographer.

"He's the most wonderful man in the business because he realizes that models are not just coat hangers," famed model Suzy Parker once said. An Avedon shot of Parker from 1959 was credited with igniting the bikini boom.

But among Avedon's best-known work was "Nothing Personal," a 1964 collection of unflattering photographs of affluent Americans. He collaborated with author James Baldwin, a former classmate at the Bronx's DeWitt Clinton High School.

Time magazine called his photos of former President Eisenhower, Adlai Stevenson, Marilyn Monroe and other celebrities "a subtler, crueler instrument of distortion than any caricaturist's pencil."

His signature style was known simply as "The Avedon Look."

"The results can be pitiless," Time magazine critic Richard Lacayo once noted. "With every wrinkle and sag set out in high relief, even the mightiest plutocrat seems just one more dwindling mortal."

In 2002-03, Avedon's portrait work was highlighted at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He chose his subjects among people who interested him, instead of photographing people on commission. All were shot against a white background, without any of the typical poses or smiling faces.

Avedon said his view of the world was literally affected by his nearsightedness. "I began trying to create an out-of-focus world -- a heightened reality better than real, that suggests, rather than tells you," he once told The New Yorker in an interview.

Born in New York City in 1923, he experienced a strict upbringing in which his father -- the founder of a dress shop called Avedon's Fifth Avenue -- made him account for every penny of his five-cent weekly allowance.

In the 1940s, Avedon joined the U.S. Merchant Marine, receiving a Rolleiflex camera as a going-away gift from his father. He was assigned to the Merchant Marine photo branch, taking personnel identification photos. Later, he went on several missions to photograph shipwrecks.

Following wartime service, Avedon became a professional photographer for the tony Bonwit Teller department stores, then moved to Harper's Bazaar, where he stayed for two decades.

His breakthrough approach to fashion photography included extravagant settings such as NASA launch pads and the pyramids of Egypt.

"There's always been a separation between fashion and what I call my deeper work," Avedon said in a 1974 interview. "Fashion is where I make my living. I'm not knocking it; it's a pleasure to make a living that way. Then there's the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits."

Avedon's reputation spread to Madison Avenue, where advertisers ranging from Revlon to Douglas Aircraft sought his services. By the mid-1960s, his studio had upwards of $250,000 in annual billings.

He also developed relationships with some of the world's most sought-after models including Dorian Leigh; Dorothy Horan, best known as Dovima; Sunny Harnett; and Leigh's younger sister, Suzy Parker.

Avedon left Harper's Bazaar in 1966 to join rival Vogue as a staff photographer. In 1970, his work filled several galleries at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts in what was called the largest one-man photo exhibit ever.

His early career was fictionalized in the 1957 Hollywood musical "Funny Face," starring Fred Astaire as the fashion photographer "Dick Avery."

Avedon was married in 1944 to Dorcas Nowell, a model known professionally as Doe Avedon. They divorced after five years. In 1951, he married Evelyn Franklin. The pair later separated.

"If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it's as though I've neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up," he said in 1970. "I know that the accident of my being a photographer has made my life possible."