SAN ANTONIO, TX - Richard Avedon, 81, the famous American fashion and portrait photographer, died today at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio six days after he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage while shooting an assignment for The New Yorker magazine in Texas. A spokesperson for the magazine, Perri Dorset, said Avedon was shooting "a large essay on democracy" that was slated as a November presidential election piece for the magazine, and that he had been working on the project around the country for some time.
Avedon, who lived in Manhattan, fell ill last Saturday while working on the assignment and has been in critical and guarded condition in the hospital since then.
He was the first staff photographer for The New Yorker, starting in 1992 under then-editor Tina Brown. For more than 50 years his portraits have filled the pages of major magazines, and he's considered by most to be one of the world's premier portrait photographers. His photographic style has nearly always been "minimalist," with the subject making eye contact, against a white backdrop, and very well illuminated. The result is often a highly intimate portrait, where the subject appears to be interacting more with the intensity of the photographer than with the camera. His portraits today continue to be as stunning as his earlier work and to garner the nation's attention. His photograph in this week's issue of The New Yorker of Teresa Heinz Kerry, accompanying Judith Thurman's profile of her titled, "The Candidate's Wife," has been widely described as "glamorous."
In 2003 when Avedon was 80, he spoke along with Laura Wilson to a gathering of students at the University of Texas in Austin at the Harry Ransom Center, a rare Avedon appearance to promote the publication of Wilson's new book, Avedon at Work: In the American West. During the early 1980s as Avedon traveled the West taking photographs of ordinary people, Wilson, herself an accomplished photojournalist and writer, traveled with him for nearly six years documenting his making of what turned out to be a milestone project in Avedon's already-famous career. The Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth, TX, commissioned Avedon in 1979 to create the body of portrait work for an exhibit.
Wilson had been one of a handful of people present at a dinner party in Texas with Avedon when the idea for In The American West was proposed; in the following days she wrote Avedon a letter declaring her interest in helping if he decided to accept the project. When he got her letter, she told the audience, he called her immediately. They then spent the next five summers trolling the backroads and plains of the jagged Western range in search of the faces of the land, in a station wagon with two assistants and an 8x10 Deardorff view camera, a cumbersome and lumbering tool that demands precision and multiple assistants and all but eliminates mobile spontaneity — but it was the portrait camera of choice for Avedon after he switched from his Rolleiflex in the late 1960s. Wilson watched the watcher, documenting Avedon at work as he found, photographed, and built an unprecedented body of work across the countryside. Her photographs and observations make up Avedon at Work: In the American West.
Avedon spoke to the standing-room-only gathering of UT students that night after a brief slideshow of his images from Wilson's book. Looking into the eyes of the everyday people he photographed for In The American West — the drifters and oil field workers and ranch hands he found by driving the West's back roads and photographed against a white seamless backdrop taped to a shed or barn's side — it was clear that these subjects had the same intense relationship with Avedon, however brief and unexpected, as did Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, the Duchess of Windsor, Charlie Chaplin, and legions of other celebrities and fashion models in his Upper Eastside Manhattan studio. "I remember each one of them," the photographer replied to a student's question.
The editor of News Photographer magazine, Donald Winslow, sat next to Avedon in the Ransom Center auditorium that November night before the photographer was introduced and took the stage. When he was introduced, Avedon said beneath the sound of applause, "This may be my last trip to Texas — heck, it might be my last trip out of New York for all I know." After the evening's presentation, and Avedon's book signing for the many students who stood in the long line to see him, Winslow wrote this note about the experience of meeting and observing Avedon:
"At 80 years old, Richard Avedon appears to have more energy than almost everyone I know who is half his age or younger. The intensity of his presence is such a visible force that even while he's seated in a chair on stage lecturing more than 300 students and visitors in an overflowing auditorium, Avedon just cannot sit still. As he reaches the apex of an anecdote or when answering an audience question, it's as if he levitates from the seat to project his words all the way to the back row. Energy overflows from him and fills the room; his animation is sublime. If someone never understood it before, it's now very clear that one of the many reasons that Richard Avedon is one of the most successful and admired portrait photographers of our time, aside from the breadth of his talent and a deeply intellectual understanding of his craft, is simply the awesome intensity of his being. To interact with this man, even just by being in the same room, is to be captivated by his personality, even seated rows away in a crowded lecture hall. One can only imagine the degree of intensity that must emanate from Avedon to anyone who is a subject before his camera; it is impossible to not be fully engaged and captivated by this man's personality, even in a crowd, even as a stranger, as simply an observer. If this is his strength at 80 years old, how overwhelming must have been his sway years before?"
Avedon was born in New York City in 1923 and went to De Witt Clinton High School and in 1941 attended Columbia University. He served in the U.S. Merchant Marines photographic section from 1942 to 1944. After the service he went to work in a department store, and after a couple of years he was "discovered" by an art director. The young photographer's work started appearing in Look, Vogue, Harper's Bazaar, and other magazines.
He started as a staff photographer at Harper's Bazaar in 1945 and only two years later made his mark as a fashion photographer of note covering the French collections in Paris for that magazine and for Vogue. Avedon was named "one of the world's ten greatest photographers" in 1958 by Popular Photography magazine, and in 1962 the Smithsonian Institute curated the exhibition, "Richard Avedon."
His book Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977 was published in 1978 and coincided with a major exhibition in the Dallas Museum of Fine Arts, the High Museum of Art in Atlanta, GA, and the Isetan Museum in Tokyo. In 1993 he was awarded the International Center of Photography's Master of Photography medal. In 2001 he was inducted into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and in 2003 he was given the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American for the Arts, National Arts Award.