RICHARD AVEDON: LARGER THAN LIFE
Grand Rapids Art Museum
October 3, 2008 – January 4, 2009
Richard Avedon (1923–2004), one of the most important American photographers of the modern era, traces his dynamic career from the postwar years of the late 1940s in Europe to the early 21st century. Avedon set new precedents in fashion and portrait photography with his innovative approach to the medium. He also established a reputation as one of the greatest camera portraitists of our time.
After World War II, Avedon began taking photographs of street performers in Italy while doing freelance fashion photography for Harper’s Bazaar, where he subsequently served as chief photographer until 1966. During his years at Harper’s, Avedon created a new kind of fashion photography that transformed models from posed mannequins into actresses. He set his models in the city streets, bistros, and urban landmarks of Paris. In the studio, he required them to move and leap like dancers. The 1957 film Funny Face, starring Audrey Hepburn, cast Fred Astaire as fashion photographer, Dick Avery, a character based on Avedon, who consulted on the film and designed the opening titles.
In 1966 Avedon left Harper’s for Vogue and shifted his focus to portraiture, which he had begun in the late 1950s. Through the rest of his life, Avedon created powerfully engaging and unsparing portraits of actors, artists, writers, politicians, and intellectuals. His portraits are distinguished by their minimalist style. Posed in front of a sheer white background, the subject looks squarely into the camera. Avedon considered portrait photography a collaborative process. He admired his subjects and captured them in revealing moments as they paused in conversation with him.
Avedon’s subjects were often larger than life personalities. His photographs of President Gerald Ford, Rose Kennedy, The Beatles, and Louis Armstrong are portraits that document the 20th century. The famous and familiar people that he photographed were distinctly un-glamorized, yet their images are monumental in presence. His subjects also included sitters such as the Napalm victims he photographed on his 1971 visit to Vietnam. Avedon’s series In the American West, 1979–84, included drifters, miners, field hands, and working people from the western United States. However anonymous these subjects were, they have the same psychological presence and dignity as Avedon’s portraits of the powerful and celebrated.
Richard Avedon died suddenly in 2004 from a brain hemorrhage while shooting in San Antonio, Texas, for The New Yorker magazine. His project was titled On Democracy, befitting an American photographer who defined the stylish optimism of postwar modernism and immortalized the forthright faces of people who, in their time, were larger than life.
RICHARD AVEDON: LARGER THAN LIFE is organized by the Grand Rapids Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography for an exclusive presentation at the Grand Rapids Art Museum from October 3, 2008 through January 4, 2009. The exhibition includes over 80 photographs drawn from the collection of the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, which houses the Richard Avedon Archive.