Richard Avedon: What Becomes a Legend Most – A Master Class with Philip Gefter and Bill Goldstein

Streamed through the aegis of the 92Y.

Host Bill Goldstein reviews books, interviews authors for NBC’s Weekend Today in New York, was the founding editor of The New York Times books website, and is, himself an author.

Philip Gefter is a former New York Times picture editor and writer, photography critic, and author of the new biography of Avedon. He contributes frequently to other publications. Gefter’s last book, Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe received the 2014 Marfield Prize for national arts writing.

 “I don’t imagine that Avedon would know what to do with so many faces on one screen,” our host genially begins referring to ZOOM. He then asks Gefter to tell us a bit about himself and what drove him to write this book. The author studied painting and photography at Pratt at a time when photography wasn’t taken seriously. Though Avedon was then thought of as a fashion and celebrity photographer, Gefter observed him as someone who had a unique take. “I just loved his pictures. I thought they were radical and eye-popping.”

Richard Avedon was raised in Manhattan by a wealthy, Jewish family taken down by the Depression. They were aware of anti-Semitism and concerned with keeping up appearances. (The subject had a nose job while in high school.) Family portraits, for example, were shot with cars they didn’t own or borrowed dogs, perhaps later inspiring the photographer’s innovative staging of editorial fashion. “Dick” as Gefter refers to his subject, wanted to be a poet. He co-edited his school paper (with classmate James Baldwin) and won a city-wide verse contest. “He brought a poetic impulse to his photographs which are essential to his artistic DNA.”

Avedon was often teased for his taste and tendencies. In reaction, his stern, remote father sent him to a macho survivalist camp. Dick had one sympathetic friend that summer. Wanting to express gratitude, he signed up for the show and performed a number by his hero, Fred Astaire. At the end, he bowed and threw the boy a kiss. This didn’t go over well. That night, young Dick called his dad to come take him home using anti-Semitism as an excuse.

Photography came into his life with a YMHA Camera Club for which he employed his family’s Kodak Box Brownie. Then, during WWII, he took thousands of ID photos of Merchant Marines at the largest maritime station in Sheepshead Bay. “It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell’s saying, you become an expert in your field after 10,000 hours,” Goldstein comments. From 1944 to 1950, Avedon studied photography with Alexey Brodovich at The New School for Social Research.

“Photographer August Sander made a chronicle of individual Germans in the 20th century in such a way that created a connection to his subject,” Gefter reflects. “Dick made the apotheosis of ID photos, putting his subjects under forensic scrutiny. He advanced portraiture by reducing the frame to nothing but the subject against a white background.”

The author notes his subject was of a generation on the alert of “the profound threat of a nuclear bomb.” It’s his theory that beneath unsmiling portraits is the sense of communal dread of a society who knows we can annihilate ourselves. “Don’t think about who they are,” Avedon said. “Just look at their faces.”

Goldstein takes us back to 1945 when, promoted by Brodovich, Avedon joined Harper’s Bazaar under editor Carmel Snow. “Let’s, for shorthand, call it the Funny Face period of his life,” he says referring to the film with Audrey Hepburn and Fred Astaire. Leonard Gershe, a young playwright who shared a house with Dick and his wife Doe one summer wrote a play called Wedding Day. Modeled on the Avedons, it would become the 1957 movie.

Avedon revolutionized fashion photography by taking his models outside to the streets and creating scenarios with movement. The photographer was 23 when he first worked in Paris. Gefter, no stranger to poetic inclination, calls him “The impresario of the fleeting visual metaphor.”

We look at some fashion photos including the iconic Dovima-with-elephants image that sold at auction this spring for 1.8 million dollars and one of a young Carmen Dell’Orefice seemingly walking on air. Gefter identifies what he calls “the Avedon woman,” as free-spirited and game, rather, he notes, like Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s or Dick’s own first cousin Marjorie Lederer. “She, to me, is a precursor of the woman he would invent,” the author says.

“I know her. I’d recognize her if she walked into this room. She’s sisterly, laughs a great deal…” (Irving Penn referring to the female persona Avedon created) Gefter adds to the description: “She had spontaneity, idiosyncrasy, tomboyish figure, and sublime urban chic.” (From the book.)

Goldstein comments that, in the book, as well as illuminating his career, the author brings out Avedon’s great humanity. “Dick was, in fact, a mensch. He supported his mother and his wife of many years after they divorced,” Gefter responds. He tells us his subject was intellectual and thoughtful. Lifelong friends like Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Sidney Lumet and Renata Adler seem to attest to that.

The book opens with Avedon’s 1975 exhibition at The Marlboro Gallery, a show dismissed as being “high style” and formulaic. Gefter protests that it wasn’t a formula, it was a signature. When MOMA approached the artist suggesting a retrospective, he declared himself not ready. Instead the museum mounted a small selection of photos of his father. The photographer then embarked on a series of  8’ x 30’ group mural portraits including The Chicago Seven and The Andy Warhol Factory.

Accepting the offer of a show at The Minneapolis Museum of Art, he eagerly and naively shared the news with MOMA curators who were not happy to be preempted. Relations were never the same and the artist’s eventual retrospective would be held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gefter discovered, contrary to popular belief, that Avedon didn’t pursue his exhibitions, but was always invited.

We look at some of his portraits: Robert Frank, Jasper Johns, Lee Friedlander, Iowa waitress Jeannie Banta, a shipping clerk from Colorado, James Galanos, Katherine Graham. “He strips everyone of class and social positions photographing them almost as specimens,” Gefter notes. Other photographers add accoutrements to show who people are, while Avedon focused on inner life.  “What do you think he wanted us to see in these?” Goldstein queries. “I think he just wanted us to look in a way you can’t do in real life,” the author replies.

“Avedon was unhappy being identified as a commercial photographer,” our host remarks. Gefter’s title nonetheless refers to a famous ad campaign for Blackgama Mink that harnessed the extraordinary star power of such as Martha Graham, Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, Marlene Dietrich, Maria Callas, Joan Crawford…Each month a different legend would be featured. The agency chose Avedon because their legends would only participate if he was behind the camera.  

He also photographed the Calvin Klein Jeans campaign featuring fifteen-year-old Brooke Shields and directed her in accompanying television commercials. “There is a mutual vulnerability and a moment of fusion when he clicks the shutter. You either get it or you don’t,” she told Interview Magazine.

Our host asks whether, as a “control freak” the subject managed to engineer his own legacy. Admitting he himself fits that bill, Gefter agrees Avedon did just that. It took persistence and perception to go deeper.

Opening Photo: Philip Gefter and Bill Goldstein. Courtesy of the 92Y.

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About Alix Cohen (967 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.