Richard Avedon: master photographer and master manipulator

By Aleksandra Johnson

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, NY, 1957

Known for his nonconformist style and revealing portraits, Richard Avedon went beyond the typical static photos of pretty women in dresses to reveal the spirit of his subject. Avedon got his start as a fashion photographer shooting for magazines such as Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. Inspired by Martin Munkacsi, Avedon made his mark by showing his models being themselves and often in motion. For more than half a decade, Richard Avedon’s unpretentious photographs have graced the covers of the most famous magazines, inspired movies, and captured the essence of his subject’s soul.

While the fashion image is not known for depth, Avedon developed a style that revealed the soul and personality of its subject. He began photographing celebrities in his studio using minimalist techniques.  His subjects sat in front of a white backdrop and looked straight into the camera.  This style of photography allowed the viewer to focus on the subject’s personality, seeing the truth no matter how unflattering.  He knew that in order to fully embody someone through a portrait they would have to be stripped of every false trait they possessed.  This meant that Avedon would have to become a master of manipulation. 

When Avedon photographed the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he knew they would put on their best royal faces for his camera.   Avedon began the session with a lie that would show a side of the Duke and Duchess no one had seen before.  The lie was simply that a taxi had hit his dog, but it destroyed the protective coating that the couple kept and revealed their true selves.  Whether or not this is an accurate description of the couple, Avedon felt that it shattered the couple’s barrier. 

A similar story took place when Avedon photographed the legendary Marilyn Monroe.  Today we all understand Miss Monroe’s tragic story, but rewind 50 years and she was the epitome of a perky, blond bombshell.  The moment she stepped in front of the camera, she put on her perfect, peppy persona.  She spent hours dancing, singing, and simply being Marilyn Monroe.  After Avedon had allowed her to wear herself down “there was an inevitable drop…she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone” he stated.  The final result is among one of the most famous portraits ever made, foreshadowing Marilyn’s life to come.

Richard Avedon was not only skilled with a camera, but also with minds.  His photographs pushed boundaries and showed a new side to some of the most well known personalities of his time.  With the click of a shutter, and a small white lie, he could dive past a forged exterior and expose the truth that remained in each one of his subjects.  Whether what he exposed was the truth or not, there is no doubt that Richard Avedon was not only a master photographer, but also a master manipulator.

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