In a compilation of some of the greatest photographs ever taken, it would be impossible to not include the portraits of Richard Avedon, who seemed to effortlessly find a way of evoking the “truth” about the person in front of his camera.

Avedon, however, often found the camera to be a necessary obstacle.

“I hate cameras, they interfere, they’re always in the way. If I could just work with my eyes alone.”

Indeed, the photographer himself had eyes so big they resembled the lens of a camera; he quite literally reflected the very medium which defined him.

Two of Avedon’s most iconic covers for Harper’s Bazaar. He essentially transformed the way modern American fashion was represented.

His earliest work was in advertising and it is these images which are arguably some of his most iconic. In the 1940’s models were usually photographed in stilted poses with little to no expression. But Avedon challenged that tradition and by the early 1950’s he became a regular contributor to Harper’s Bazaar.

Avedon found that both the models and the clothes they wore looked better when they were moving. Editors clamored for new and exciting images that were as much art as commercial vehicles.

Still, Avedon found his deepest fulfillment away from fashion.

“There’s always been a separation between fashion and what I call my ‘deeper’ work.’ Fashion is where I make my living. I’m not knocking it. It’s a pleasure to make a living that way. It’s pleasure, and then there’s the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits.”

Bernhard Benke

Will Wilson

Edward Wang

Alison Wonderland

Avedon portrait work catapulted him to a fame far beyond his work in fashion. “There’s always been a separation between fashion and what I call my ‘deeper’ work.’”

By the late 1970’s and 80’s, Avedon became increasingly immersed in his portrait photography, which were unlike those of any other photographer at that time. Avedon pierced the veil of celebrity and notoriety. Who the person was mattered less to him than what he could capture in terms of their emotion, and as an icon of their time.

In the minimalist setting of a blank studio, he allowed his camera to capture the gestures and expressions that made each person unique, whether a president or politician, film star and artist, jet-setter or society doyenne. Bob Dylan, the Kennedys, Norman Mailer, Malcolm X: with each, Avedon captured the essence of their character rendered in the purest of  black and white.

Some of his most iconic photographs remain so because we see more than we thought existed; the protective guard is lowered, the truth is confessed, a sorrow laid bare.

“Snapshots that have been taken of me working show something I was not aware of at all, that over and over again I’m holding my own body or my own hands exactly like the person I’m photographing. I never knew I did that, and obviously what I’m doing is trying to feel, actually physically feel, the way he or she feels at the moment I’m photographing them in order to deepen the sense of connection.”

Avedon was proudest of his documentary work, which sometimes offered searing images of a world that was often overlooked. In 1963 he traveled to the Louisiana Mental Hospital and chronicled the lives of those living without hope, often in squalor, and with utterly no way to shield themselves from the camera. It was a controversial series but also one that brought to light the inadequacies of the mental health system in America.

But it was 1985’s exhibition, In the American West, that caused a very different stir with a collection of portraits of ordinary people he discovered while traveling through 17 western states. Here we see ranch workers, drifters, and gamblers, once again posed starkly against a starkly white void, in highly-focused images that leave no detail unexposed.

The pictures were monumental in scale–up to 56 x 35 inches–and this scale is precisely what caused some to be unnerved by the almost confrontational nature of the photographs. The press was undecided on whether this was art or documentary. The New York Times headlined a review with AVEDON TAKES A DARK VIEW OF THE WEST, while one local journalist summarized his impression with, “This is not our West.”

“The moment {a} fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

Avedon never denied that his images were only one point of view.
It is why to this day his work is a reference for an uncluttered, unrehearsed way of seeing.  For him, both the famous and the forgotten can be placed within the same frame. What he saw with his unflinching gaze continues to be what is so compelling about his work. Their gaze reflected in his own.