The Iconic Richard Avedon: A Look at the Photographer’s Long-Lasting Appeal

The centenary of Avedon’s birth inspired scores of exhibitions and cemented his place in art, fashion and celebrity canon.

Photographer Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon planning his retrospective exhibition at New York’s Marlborough Gallery in 1975. Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images

May of last year marked the centenary of photographer Richard Avedon’s birth, and the exhibitions and events held in honor of his talent and lasting impact on culture took us from 2023 into 2024. The Metropolitan Museum of Art presented a selection of Avedon’s innovative group portraits in “Richard Avedon: MURALS.” London’s Hamiltons Gallery shared rarely seen works in “Avedon: Glamorous.” The Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Texas displayed thirteen works from the photographer’s raw 1985 “In the American West” series, which was commissioned by the museum in the late 70s.

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The most recent of these was “Iconic Avedon: A Centennial Celebration of Richard Avedon,” a retrospective that closed earlier this month at Gagosian’s rue de Ponthieu location in Paris and was a follow-up to the mega-gallery’s “Avedon 100” exhibition in New York. Curated by Derek Blasberg in collaboration with Joshua Chuang, Gagosian’s director of photography, and Avedon’s daughter-in-law Laura Avedon, who is co-director of the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York City, “Iconic Avedon” not only showcased the work of the renowned photographer but also demonstrated, once again, why his sharp, iconic style came to define modern photography.

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If one photographer has done it all, it is Richard Avedon, who shot the biggest icons of his time—Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Martin Luther King—for magazines like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. In the process, he himself became larger than life, and it’s almost hard to believe someone who is still so influential and culturally relevant was born over 100 years ago. Avedon’s lasting cultural cachet stems in part from the fact that his career is what every photographer aspires to—he personified a dream.

Dinner Party Honoring Richard Avedon Hosted by Random House and The New Yorker - September 27, 1993
Kate Moss and Richard Avedon in 1993. Ron Galella Collection via Getty

Avedon passed away in 2004, but during his lifetime, he photographed stars, models and politicians. He was known and lauded in his own time—he lived a lavish lifestyle in a sprawling four-story Upper East Side townhouse, a former carriage house he bought in 1970 (Avedon’s oceanfront Hamptons home became a luxury rental property in 2019). The townhouse is where he invited Elizabeth Taylor, Allen Ginsberg, Robin Williams and others to pose for intimate shoots.

Since Avedon, who started shooting at age 9, opened his New York photo studio in the 1940s, he grew to seemingly have it all—commercial work, museum exhibitions and huge coffee table books. At first, he was mainly working as a fashion photographer, shooting campaigns for Calvin Klein, Versace and Revlon. He was a staff photographer for Harper’s Bazaar from 1944 to 1965—art director Alexey Brodovitch saw his photo work and invited a then-unknown Avedon to shoot Christian Dior’s “New Look” collection in Paris—and Vogue from 1966 to 1988, creating one iconic magazine cover after another while defining his own photographic style.

A woman in a long-sleeved gown poses in front of elephants with their trunks raised
‘Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque D’Hiver Paris.’ © The Richard Avedon Foundation, Courtesy of Gagosian

“Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque D’Hiver Paris,” published in a 1955 issue of Harper’s Bazaar is one example of what that style embodied. Avedon famously said this photo was “a vacation from life.” It’s arguably the seminal shot that changed fashion photography, elevating it to pure fantasy long before Photoshop and filters started running the show.

Later, he’d become known as a celebrity photographer—and something of a celebrity himself. He brought a sense of life and excitement and realness to celebrity photography that hadn’t existed before. What made Richard Avedon the Avedon was his ability to capture images of people used to posturing and playing characters that reflect a stunning openness and honesty.

He shot Monroe in his New York studio on May 6, 1957, and famously said: “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that’s… she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop.” That’s when he got his iconic photo of her with her facade lifted—it remains a rare thing to unveil Hollywood, and Avedon was doing it long before it was the norm.

A woman in a sparkly evening gown pauses in contemplation in a black and white photo
Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, New York, May 6, 1957. © The Richard Avedon Foundation, Courtesy of Gagosian

That said, some of Richard Avedon’s best photos were portraits of artists, whether it’s Alberto Giacometti, Andy Warhol or sculptor June Leaf. It feels like Avedon was most at home in the company of other artists. If Avedon wasn’t taken as seriously as certain other “art” photographers in his lifetime, that’s no reflection of the artistry of his work, which has long defied criticism and likely will continue to do so well into the future.

The Iconic Richard Avedon: A Look at the Photographer’s Long-Lasting Appeal