One of the leading photographers of the century, New York City native Richard Avedon was a restless and relentless chronicler of our time for more than 50 years. "No one has given a nation a more wide-ranging, disciplined photographic document of itself," John Lahr noted in The Times of London. A prize-winning poet in high school, Avedon dropped out and joined the Merchant Marines in 1942. With his father's going-away gift in hand-a Rolleiflex camera-he applied to the Merchant Marines' photography branch and among other assignments, took identification photographs of personnel. After the war, Avedon became the chief photographer for Harper's Bazaar in the late '40s. There, for two decades, he elevated fashion photography to an art form, shattering the conventional mold that models should project indifference. Instead, Avedon's models laughed, danced, played in the rain, embraced athletes and engaged in other emotional vignettes.
In 1959, he published Observations, a book of photographs with text by Truman Capote. He photographed the civil rights movement in the South in 1963 and, the following year, collaborated with James Baldwin on the book Nothing Personal. In 1966, he left Harper's Bazaar to become staff photographer at Vogue. In the late '60s and early '70s, Avedon photographed antiwar protesters in the United States and military leaders and war victims in Vietnam. One New Year's Eve 1989-90, he documented the night East and West Berlin became one. Avedon became the first-ever staff photographer for The New Yorker in 1992.
Avedon brought a new focus to portrait photography, revealing unexpected facets of people-from the world famous to the unknown — against a white background. "A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or 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 truth," he said.
Avedon had many major exhibitions, including a 1970 portrait retrospective at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts; photographs of his father, Jacob Israel Avedon, at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 1974; "Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977," a retrospective of his fashion work, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, and "Avedon 1946-1980 at the University Art Museum in Berkeley, California. In 1985, "In the American West" opened at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. In 1994, the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York exhibited "Evidence," a retrospective of his work which then toured the world. Most recently, the Metropolitan Museum of Art honored his work as a portrait photographer in the retrospective "Richard Avedon Portraits."
In addition to Observations and Nothing Personal, Avedon published nine other books, including Alice in Wonderland, Portraits, Photographs 1947-1977, In the American West, An Autobiography, Evidence, The Sixties, Made in France and Richard Avedon Portraits.
He was the recipient of numerous awards and honors, including the University of California, Berkeley, Chancellor's Citation (1980); Harvard University, Certificate of Recognition (1986-87); Royal College of Art, London, Honorary Doctorate (1989); Erna and Victor Hasselblad Foundation International Photography Prize (1991); the International Center of Photography Master of Photography Award (1993); induction into the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (2001); the Royal Photographic Society 150th Anniversary Medal (2003); the Arts & Business Council Award for Outstanding Achievement in the Visual Arts (2003); and Americans for the Arts National Arts Award for Lifetime Achievement (2003).
Avedon was married in 1944 to Dorcas Nowell, a model known professionally as Doe Avedon. After five years, they divorced and in 1951, he married Evelyn Franklin, but they also separated.
Hollywood presented a fictional account of his early career in the 1957 musical Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire as the fashion photographer "Dick Avery."
On September 25, 2004, he suffered a brain hemorrhage in San Antonio, Texas while shooting an assignment for The New Yorker. He died in San Antonio on October 1. At the time of his death, Avedon was working on a new project entitled “On Democracy.” The project focused on the run-up to the 2004 U.S. presidential election, and featured portraits of the candidates, delegates to the national nominating conventions, and others.