Turning the lens around on richard avedon

Posted December 12, 2017 8:53 p.m. EST

“Faces,” photographer Richard Avedon once said, “are the ledgers of our experience.”

He never tired of reading them. In his long, relentlessly innovative career, he was never tempted by a landscape or still life. The human face was world enough. He produced portraits and only portraits — of Marilyn Monroe and George Wallace, drifters and swamis, his dying father and his dejected wives.

To sit for a portrait by Avedon, however, was risky — “an invitation to a beheading,” in the words of one critic. But few could resist. “Be kind,” Henry Kissinger pleaded. “You’ll make me look handsome?” Avedon’s father asked. In every instance, the photographer refused to flatter. “I looked like I could give the viewer some contagious infection through the photograph,” his friend Renata Adler groused.

Many of those sitters, along with friends and collaborators from Donatella Versace to Twyla Tharp, share their memories in “Avedon: Something Personal,” part oral history and part remembrance by Norma Stevens, Avedon’s longtime studio director, and Steven M.L. Aronson, a former book editor.

It’s a good time, this book. There’s a feeling of arriving at a party where everyone is at least two drinks (and who knows what else) ahead of you, and the hostess has you by the arm and is barreling you into the thick of things, talking a mile a minute, catching you up on everyone’s hidden agendas, all before you’ve even shucked off your coat: “Diane von Furstenberg was there, looking impossibly chic, and Gordon Parks, looking snazzy. And Mike Nichols, with wife number three. Nora Ephron fessed up that this was her first night on the town since having her baby.”

There’s a lot of this sort of thing: gobbets of gossip tucked into every scene and wild happenings in the corner of your eye — a legendary and vengeful hairdresser dousing Linda Evangelista’s hair in petrol, say. It’s messy, and “fun fun fun,” as Stevens puts it, but there’s also a serious project at hand.

Late in his life, Avedon referred to himself as his own widow. He was consumed with securing his legacy — organizing retrospectives, even designing for himself a grand deathbed (which he never got to use; he died of a heart attack, at 81, on assignment in Texas in 2004). According to Stevens, he left the matter of telling the truth of his life to her. “Don’t be kind — I don’t want a tribute, I want a portrait,” he supposedly said. “Make me into an Avedon.”

Stevens does her best. She’s hamstrung by her affection for him, if mere affection is the word: She had him design her face-lift and slept next to a blown-up photograph of the two of them together. She doesn’t know what to do with the darker recesses of his life; the charges of his racism, for example, or of his youthful sexual encounters with his older sister and his cousin. Avedon himself was surprisingly forthright about these relationships, but Stevens can only acknowledge what he told her, with a quick glance and shudder.

That said, she doesn’t spare him entirely. Avedon was famous for zooming in on his subjects’ warts and wens and liver spots, and he comes in for a little of the same. Stevens tells us about his reliance on uppers and downers and his fixation with his obituary in The New York Times. He’d count the words in the death notices of rivals and obsess over whether his would be longer (it would), whether it would make the front page (it would) or be above the fold or below (below, alas).

Stevens is most illuminating in her behind-the-scenes glimpses of the work. Avedon revolutionized the field; he brought an end to the era of the docile mannequin posing stiffly in this season’s clothes — his women leapt off the page; they danced and tumbled and communicated. “I invented a whole confetti of movement,” he said.

He resisted stasis everywhere. He was always looking to push one envelope or the other. He put Brooke Shields in her Calvin Klein jeans and wrapped the boa constrictor around Nastassja Kinski. He was the first to feature bare breasts in a high-fashion magazine (and got punched by the model’s mother in the process). And he repeatedly remade himself — the prince of fashion photography (and inspiration for Fred Astaire’s character in “Funny Face”), he moved on to document the American West and, in his collaboration with James Baldwin, “Nothing Personal,” the civil rights movement.

The boundary he reliably pushed was extravagance. Stevens’ accounts of bygone media largess seem less like dispatches from a different era than from a different planet entirely. When Avedon’s expenses for a New Yorker shoot reached seven figures, he decided a splashy present was due and sent the magazine his invoices and receipts in the largest box Tiffany had in stock.

The most intimate detail Stevens was conscripted to reveal was Avedon’s homosexuality. Stevens alone, of all his friends, knew of it (or so she alleges). “I don’t want it defining me — ‘the gay photographer,’ as if I were a professional homosexual,” he told her. Stevens says he confided in her about some “innocent kissing” with James Baldwin when younger and his decadelong affair with director Mike Nichols, their abandoned plans to leave their wives and elope. But “the skeleton stays in the closet — I just can’t do it,” Stevens says he told her. “You do it, after I’m gone.”

Avedon’s secretiveness might have scuttled a traditional biography, but it’s sidestepped with Stevens’ oral history approach. Everyone saw one side of him — but together the testimonies of his assistants, models and lovers add up to a mosaic of the man. The snapshots are affectionate and admiring, and the contradictions in them can give you whiplash — until the end Avedon was pavonine and recessive, autocratic and inhibited, everyone’s best friend and utterly inscrutable. It doesn’t add up. It can’t. It’s a portrait, and as Avedon’s most famous saying goes: “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”

Publication Notes:

“Avedon: Something Personal”

By Norma Stevens and Steven M.L. Aronson

Illustrated. 699 pages. Spiegel & Grau. $40.