It’s easy to envy – even hate – Richard Avedon.
The legendary photographer, who died in 2004, traveled the world shooting the most stunning fashion, the most magnificent models, the most sparkling stars. He’s teetering with Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Hutton. His artistic counterparts – amateur photographers such as Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander – and critics booed or saw his opulence, four-story townhouses, lavish museum shows and commercial advertising work. It didn’t help that she could exaggerate herself, with her expensive and padded coffee table books and larger-than-life prints.
However, behind all that sparkle and shine, Avedon’s personal life was much messier, and more human.
“He’s suffering,” said Philip Gefter, who has written Avedon’s new biography, “What’s Most Legendary(HarperCollins).
According to Gefter’s book, Avedon was constantly struggling. She suffered because of her Judaism, the breakdown of her two marriages and her chaotic sexuality, including a youthful romance with a cousin.
“He spent his adult life in therapy and psychoanalysis – not without reason,” Gefter told The Post. “While growing up, he endured anti-Semitic prejudice. He has a kind of homophobia; even though he had homosexual feelings, it was undesirable. “Plus, many of the women around him – his aunt, his sister, his second wife, Evelyn, and his close friend, fellow photographer Diane Arbus, all suffer from some form of mental illness.
“One of his qualities is that he is not only able to survive [all] but it applies to living a very constructive life, ”said Gefter. Those qualities also allowed him to create psychologically astute, clear-eyed, and radical portraits of nearly every kind of person in America in the second half of the 20th century, not just celebrities but war sellers, civil rights leaders, beekeepers and beekeepers. .
“I feel Avedon didn’t get his rights for the rest of his life. He was often laid off as a fashion photographer, and later as a celebrity photographer, and I always thought that he was more important than that, ”said Gefter. “And I want to make that case.”
Richard Avedon was born in 1923 in Manhattan, the oldest of two children. His father, Jacob (Jack) Israel Avedon, is an immigrant from present-day Belarus who runs a successful clothing store. His mother, Anna, was a free-spirited man from a wealthy family who encouraged Dick’s love of art.
But Avedon’s childhood was not very beautiful. Jack lost his business in the Great Depression, and was too harsh on young Dick (as everyone called Avedon), who was sensitive and, worryingly for Jack, had no interest in sports. Dick’s beloved younger sister, the beautiful, enigmatic, and strangely quiet, Louise, was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teenager. Dick was bullied as a child for being a “sissy,” and got a nose job when he was 17 years old to appear less Jewish. Jack, who wanted his son to fit in and assimilate in any way he could, paid for it.
Dick is comforted by his first cousin, Margie, a friend who doesn’t get along with his mother (Anna’s sister) who is in and out of a psychiatric institution. Fun, cheeky and impulsive, Margie would coax Dick out of her shell – making her sneak into a Broadway show with her, for example. The two, according to several family members, have also been in an affair.
“I really loved Margie from the age of 4 to 18,” Avedon told one of her collaborators, editor Nicole Wisniak, when she was in her 60s. Our feelings for each other were strong, forbidden, so conspiracy. “
Avedon got his first camera, a Box Brownie, at the age of 9 and went on to work in a photo studio in high school. His first shots of Louise and Margie, who would devise an elaborate scheme for Dick’s photograph, involved a sudden funeral and a shocking stranger on the street.
When he failed his senior year at DeWitt Clinton HS in The Bronx, Avedon signed up to Merchant Marine, where he was fortunate to land a position as a photographer at a maritime services training station in Sheepshead Bay. Not only did he take ID photos of each newcomer, he also provided journalistic photos for two of the organization’s magazines.
Avedon still feels like an outsider – and not just because he may be the only sailor exploring Harper’s Bazaar, not the cheesecake on his bed. Somehow, she was always stuck with the worst tasks: cleaning toilets and mopping floors. One day someone drew a swastika on the wall of his bed in black crayon.
“From then on, throughout the course of his duties, he continued with constant fear,” wrote Gefter.
But one good thing comes out of it: Alexey Brodovitch, director of the legendary art of Harper’s Bazaar, thinks Merchant Marine Avedon’s photos show promise. In 1947, the largely unknown Avedon was chosen to shoot Christian Dior’s innovative New Look collection in Paris.
It’s extraordinarily glamorous: Avedon arrives in Paris with model-muse-wife Doe, and the two stuff a bottle of champagne in a taxi, watching the City of Lights flash by them. During the day, Avedon will be photographing Doe and Renée Breton who are more experienced in their Dior plush fur and hourglass-shaped dresses on the streets. In the evening, the couple will sip drinks in nightclubs and cabaret.
He spent his adult life in therapy and psychoanalysis – not without reason.
– Author Philip Gefter at Richard Avedon
It was enchanting, he said: “the convergence of the bliss of existence , fell in love with the most beautiful girl, was sent to Paris, bought a bottle of champagne at the airport, drove around Paris in an open top taxi. “
The images caused a sensation. Instead of a serene studio photo of a model posing like a doll, Avedon records her musings in motion – hopping, swirling, preening the streets of Paris. Soon, Avedon became not only the world’s most sought-after fashion photographer, but also a successful portrait and commercial photographer.
Subjects include stars such as Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland, who had stayed up past midnight partying with Tony Bennett the night before shooting, for Blackglama Furs, and then spending $ 500 on Carven perfume at the hotel drugstore, which is owned by the fur company. pay for. Her record writers include Truman Capote and pop sensations such as Ringo Starr, who challenged Avedon to a whiskey drinking contest; after passing out, the Beatles had to be smuggled through the roof and out through a secret door in the next building to avoid the paparazzi waiting outside.
But personally, Avedon’s life continues to unravel. Doe – who has gone to great lengths to turn into a supermodel – wants to become an actress and runs off with a fellow pianist she meets in a summer stock production. Avedon remarried, but his second wife, Evelyn Franklin, suffered from depression and erratic behavior, accusing the photographer of sleeping with Lee Radziwill and putting a cigarette in the palm of her hand when she didn’t get the constant attention she wanted. Once, Franklin greeted Leonard and Felicia Bernstein, who had come to dinner, in their nightgowns, with their hair uncombed and their faces untied.
“It’s burdensome [Avedon] tough, “Gefter said of Franklin’s mental illness. Although the couple – who had one son, John – separated in 1972, they never divorced and Avedon would support him for the rest of his life.
In 1968, Avedon’s beloved sister, Louise, died at the age of 42, a few weeks after she visited him in the mental hospital where he had lived for more than 15 years. In the end, she had to be spoon-fed and said nothing but “a random series of profanity.” Avedon felt guilty. “I don’t think I really wanted to help him,” he said in a later interview. “My hands are busy trying to hold back.”
Then there’s Avedon’s sexuality. He had been expelled from Merchant Marine seeking “psychiatric help” and, as Gefter wrote, “talked about his uncomfortable homosexuality.” In the 1950s, he began to look at a new analyst, Edmund Bergler, who in the 1950s was known as the “expert” on homosexuality and claimed it was a “condition” that could be cured.
Even when friends such as Leonard Bernstein began publicly dating men in the 1970s and 80s, Avedon kept the affair a secret, despite his business partners, in an explosive story published in 2017, accusing him of having many secret meetings and even relationship with film director Mike Nichols.
“She made the choice to get married and lead a more conventional, influential life so she could have a career,” said Gefter. The same-sex relationship she had – with a lawyer in the 1980s – was never publicly acknowledged. “I don’t even know if Avedon’s son knows [about it], ”Said Gefter.
Despite his illness, Avedon continued to advance. Part of it, according to Gefter’s confession, was a response to his judgmental and demanding father. “I think his ambition and sense of competition pushed him to prove to his father that not only could he survive in the world, but he could be very successful and very rich,” he said.
Her struggles give her the empathy to help teenagers, jaded celebrities, and casual people who are off guard posing for photos.
“I think he saw things very directly, very clearly,” said Gefter, referring to Avedon’s preferred portrait style: only subjects on a white background. “You don’t get lost in all the other things around that person, but just looking at that person.”