A Literary Portrait of Richard Avedon Causes Controversy

Posted January 1, 2018 5:50 p.m. EST

The photographer Richard Avedon used to joke to that if he ever wrote an autobiography, he would title it “Here Lies Richard Avedon” — a self-referential dig at his tendency to exaggerate and fabricate stories about his past.

Norma Stevens, Avedon’s longtime studio director and business manager, recounts this joke early on in “Avedon: Something Personal,” a blend of biography, memoir and oral history that she wrote with Steven M.L. Aronson, a former book editor. It’s both a telling anecdote about her wily subject, and something of a red flag for readers — a sign that some details in the book may have originated from Avedon’s imagination rather than reality.

But exactly how much did Avedon, and perhaps by extension Stevens, blur fact and fiction? That question has flared up in a dispute over the accuracy of the biography.

Last week, the Richard Avedon Foundation called on Stevens’ publisher, Spiegel & Grau, a Random House imprint, to withdraw the book, arguing that her account is full of errors and falsehoods and could harm the legacy of the legendary fashion and portrait photographer, who died in 2004 at age 81. Spiegel & Grau says it will do no such thing, but will correct errors in future editions.

The feud has cast a pall over what was billed as an intimate and revelatory tell-all. Stevens drew on her own conversations with Avedon over the decades, and interviewed many of his prominent friends and collaborators, including Calvin Klein, David Remnick, Twyla Tharp, Donatella Versace, Jann Wenner and Isabella Rossellini. Some of Steven’ revelations about Avedon’s personal life are so juicy that they leaked to the gossip pages in advance of the book’s release on Nov. 21. (The New York Post’s Page Six reported on the book’s description of Avedon’s secret affair with the director Mike Nichols and his sometimes withering views of his colleagues and the celebrities he photographed.)

In a release issued Dec. 20, the foundation compiled a list of factual errors from the book, among them, Stevens’ claim that she was by Avedon’s side when he died (he was attended only by his family when he died in San Antonio, while Stevens was in New York City at the time, according to the foundation); that Avedon was paid $1 million a year to join Vogue as a fashion photographer (he signed a contract with Condé Nast that awarded him $1 million over 20 years); and that Avedon photographed his terminally ill father “relentlessly,” taking 50 portraits of him during “fraught” sittings (according to the foundation, there were just six portrait sessions).

The foundation also claims that Stevens based parts of the book on an unfinished, semiautobiographical novel Avedon was working on for years before his death, in which he blended elements of his past with fiction. “Stevens appears to be lifting various stories out of this fictional work, lightly editing and rewriting them, and then presenting them as both her own work and as biographical fact,” James Martin, executive director of the Richard Avedon Foundation, said in a statement.

Martin said he read parts of Avedon’s novel in progress after his death, when he was sorting through his files and packing them up. He said he asked Stevens what she wanted him to do with the manuscript, and she said she would take care of it, and took the box and put it under her desk. (When asked to provide examples of overlapping passages from the novel and the biography, the foundation declined to do so.)

Spiegel & Grau refuted the foundation’s claim. “Norma Stevens did not copy or use a Richard Avedon novel in any way in writing “Avedon: Something Personal,” the company said in a statement. “The Avedon Foundation has made loose, unsubstantiated allegations of copyright infringement without presenting any documented instances of substantial similarity between our book and another work.”

Stevens was not available to comment for this article, a spokeswoman for Spiegel & Grau said, but the publisher defended the work: “The book is an important and meaningful account by the person who was in a privileged position to observe and know Richard Avedon as well as anybody else and to reflect on him.”

Stevens worked with Avedon closely for nearly 30 years, and had a front-row view of his celebrated, glamorous career. Before he died, Avedon indicated that he wanted to name Stevens executive director of his foundation, and she ran it for five years. Stevens notes in the book that Avedon often urged her to write about him, and to make it an honest and unsparing portrait. “The best portrait is always the truth. Make me into an Avedon,” she said he told her. In a career that spanned nearly six decades, Avedon revolutionized fashion photography and took revealing portraits of some of the biggest cultural giants of the modern era, including Ezra Pound, Charlie Chaplin, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Allen Ginsberg. His works were exhibited in museums around the world and collected in books and exhibition catalogs, including “Observations,” which featured text by Truman Capote, and “Nothing Personal,” with text by James Baldwin.

But while his portraits of others were often shockingly intimate, Avedon himself kept much of his private life, including questions about his sexuality, shielded from public view. His archives are closely held by the foundation, and 13 years after his death, no one has published a significant book about his life before Stevens and Aronson.

Some of Avedon’s close friends, family members and collaborators have expressed doubt that Avedon urged Stevens, who is not an author, to write about him and include scandalous revelations about his private life.

“I think he’d be horrified,” actor and director Andre Gregory, a close friend of Avedon, said in an interview. “He was one of the most discreet men I’ve ever met.”

John Avedon, the photographer’s son, called the biography a “collection of either half-truths, or outright falsehoods, embellished into often salacious stories,” and cited two specific passages in which he is referred to — including a macabre one in which he prepared a meal containing his deceased father’s ashes, mistaken for oregano — as false.

He said his father, who was famously controlling over the way his work was presented, had never seemed keen on the idea of a biography.

“On the one occasion in which I raised the topic my father made it abundantly clear that he had no desire to participate in, or be the subject of, a biography,” Avedon said in an email. “The whole idea was anathema. My father wanted to be remembered for his life’s work — his photographs.”

Other friends of Avedon were livid at how their relationship with him was portrayed. Nicole Wisniak, founder and editor of the French-language magazine Egoiste, said in an email that Stevens “has chosen to completely lie about the nature of my relationship with Dick.”

Adam Gopnik, a writer for The New Yorker and a close friend of Avedon who was interviewed by Stevens and Aronson, said Stevens “misrepresented” her project and told him she was writing an oral history of the Avedon studio, not a biography. He also said that the words attributed to Avedon in the book sound out of character for him.

“It would be a source of grief to Dick to find himself the subject of a posthumous tell all, a genre he loudly, and often, despised,” Gopnik said in an email. The most reliable source on whether Avedon would have approved of the book is, of course, no longer alive. But Avedon addressed questions of truth, fiction and accuracy when discussing his own photographs, in ways that suggest he was skeptical that any art form, even photography, could fully capture its subject.

“There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate,” he said. “None of them is the truth.”