Avedon Women

What does beauty look like? What makes a good photograph? How do you respond to the idea of a classical beauty, a model quality? With a focus on women (and men) and beauty this week,  how do we bring together ageing and concepts of beauty? Attractiveness?- is this  beauty- who are we attracting anyway?! Or is ” beauty” far too narrow a concept and we need to broaden the notion?

Some years ago I visited my favourite bookshop with its very attractive SALE table. A large lime green folio attracted my attention. Called Avedon Women it’s a collection of prints of Richard Avedon’s famous photographs of women. They are loose pages ideal for framing for a black and white photo gallery I have in my home.

I found this folio in my major clean-up and revisited its beautiful images and the work of this very talented photographer. Some background. Richard Avedon (January 15, 1923 – October 1, 2004) was an American fashion and portrait photographer. An obituary published in The New York Times said that “his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century”.

A New Yorker, Avedon became a fashion photographer at Vogue with Diana Vreeland as editor  and then branched out into portraiture. His work is exhibited in many galleries around the world including the Smithsonian Museum and MoMa.

Richard Avedon told Diana Vreeland, ” I can’t think of myself as a purveyor of beauty to the world.” He wanted the real.  Avedon’s women are radiant and intense. Strong features find emphasis. Gesture is captured and performance creeps into his work.

His style is minimalist, dramatic and unique. He redefined portraiture away from the stiff and unidimensional. He never shied away from saying the portraits were about his truth- what he sees- his interpretation rather than capturing the essence of the model. Although he seems to have achieved both the capacity to interpret and to see what makes that individual unique. His subjects describe Avedon as “creating conversation with the camera.”

His women are both beautiful in a classic sense and also bring other definitions of beauty. While celebrities and fashion icons are certainly part of his repertoire, women working the land, wrinkled older woman and women with strong, powerful features are his subjects.

He explored many facets of beauty and found it in the extraordinary and varied features of his subjects. Avedon would deliberately “undo” the poised perfection of the fashion photograph. He would search deeper and emphasize the out of ordinary features of women, stretching our definitions of what can be admired and noticed.

What do you think of his work? Which portraits spoke to you? Does Avedon’s work give depth and range to the idea of beauty?

9 July 2019 | Arts

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