Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevens/Steven M.L. Aronson

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2017 by Spiegel & Grau/Random House (here). Hardcover, 709 pages, with 136 black-and-white photos. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Early in the book about Richard Avedon (1923-2004) by his longtime business manager, Norma Stevens, and her co-writer, Steven Aronson, the authors quote the photographer as stating grandly: “There is no truth, no history—there is only the way the story is told.”

Whether Avedon ever uttered this phrase, and in what context, we can’t be sure. Like everything else in the book, which lacks both footnotes and a bibliography, the words are unsourced. How readers are supposed to interpret this aphorism isn’t clear either. Is it a showman’s harmless gasconade? A Derrida-ean, post-modern truth? Or just a convenient one for biographers worried about having their veracity questioned? After all, if your subject claims to be unconcerned with accuracy in describing the details of his life, you’re off the hook if your book is riddled with wrong dates and spellings. Provided the sets, costumes, plot, characters, and mise-en-scène are dramatically realistic, what’s the harm in fictionalizing a few facts, as Avedon’s friend Truman Capote was wont to do?

One party deeply concerned about the truthfulness of this portrait—described by the publishers as a “memoir, biography, and oral history”—is the Richard Avedon Foundation. In December of last year, its lawyers asked for the book to be withdrawn (here), publishing a list of factual errors and voicing their suspicion that Stevens, when she was RAF director, stole from its archives a mysterious unfinished manuscript (half novel-half confession) that Avedon co-wrote over several years with Doon Arbus. If it ever existed, it has not been found.

While I hope, for history’s sake, that the RAF will continue to correct the mistakes made by Stevens/Aronson, those it has far cited do not yet add up to a major crime. Nor has it offered proof, other than in an anecdote, that Stevens stole material from the archives. In any case, a threat of legal action would seem to be the nuclear option. As with the dispute over the Ruedi Hofmann prints from In the American West (here), the RAF’s default position seems to be that evidence about Avedon it doesn’t approve of should be suppressed or destroyed.

Their ire is more likely based on the less flattering aspects of Avedon’s personality that are here revealed for the first time. It’s a gossipy book, not a scholarly one, but it provides many valuable “facts” about his life and career that more judicious writers have left out.

For instance, I hadn’t realized how many art critics (Hilton Kramer, Gene Thornton, Michael Kimmelman, Mark Stevens) had been ambivalent or openly hostile to Avedon’s museum exhibitions during his lifetime. I doubt that any 20th century photographer of his stature (certainly not Irving Penn) incited such strong negative reviews. Whenever Avedon presented himself as an artist with ambitions beyond fashion, the New York establishment liked to remind him where he had come from. His frustrations with his standing in the art world are therefore understandable, even if they often derived from a failure to see which of his images glowed with originality and life and which were empty and pretentious.

Stevens/Aronson offer loads of personal information here to horrify an estate that would prefer to paint an unblemished face on the reputation of the deceased. For starters, if the book is to be believed, Avedon as a teenager had an incestuous relationship with his first cousin, Margie Lederer, and perhaps with his sister, Louise, who spent most of her life hospitalized with a mental illness. Twice married, he was too busy and ambitious to be an attentive husband or father. He also had a clandestine gay life, accompanied by a terror that his affairs would be exposed and, during the ‘80s, that he might have AIDS. (His lovers apparently included the director Mike Nichols and, most enduringly, a lawyer at a New York white-shoe firm, Robert J. Reicher.) Avedon’s insatiable hunger for money and approbation, and his sharp elbows while climbing the greasy pole of top-paying magazine photography in New York—and staying on top of the pole for decades—are other traits that most previous writings about him have studiously downplayed or failed to mention.

Balancing the disclosure of these secrets, however, the authors dazzle us with stories from models, writers, editors, actors, and friends that attest to his electrifying and seductive intelligence. Almost everyone quoted in these pages, from Stevens to his many underpaid and overworked assistants, felt lucky to have been exposed, however briefly, to his force field. His nonstop energy and proximity to the arbiters of style, of which he was himself a leader, made him a magnetic figure in New York’s cultural circles for more than half-a-century. Among his contemporaries, perhaps only Leonard Bernstein and Nichols had the glamour, verve, social skills, and dominating presence in their field exhibited by Avedon throughout his adult life.

Much of the information about his upbringing and intense family ties is new. A child of the Depression, he grew up in relative comfort until the Crash. When his family was forced to move apartments, his bedroom became a windowless dining alcove. He had insecurities about being small (he grew to be only 5 ft. 7 in.) and Jewish (he had a nose job in high school, paid for by his “skinflint” father.) The arts offered a possible way forward despite his terrible grades. Before leaving DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx—he could not bear the shame of  having to repeat a grade—he had gained and never lost a love of poetry, theater, and especially dance. One of his youthful ambitions was to join Martha Graham’s troupe. Fred Astaire, who played “Dick Avery” in the movie Funny Face, was a role model for future suavity.

Stevens/Aronson don’t have much to add to the oft-told tale of Avedon’s becoming a photographer in the Merchant Marine or his crucial decision to enter Alexey Brodovitch’s workshops. The book follows the standard view, endorsed by Avedon himself, that classes with the Russian graphic design guru and seeing a photograph by Martin Munkásci of African boys running into the surf were the pivotal events in the aspiring artist’s early education. Brodovitch believed everything happening around you could feed creativity and he expected his students to be culture vultures. “It’s not just about taking pictures,” Avedon would later tell his students, echoing his teacher. “It’s an accumulation of things, including reading and going to the theater, that develops your style and your images.”

The interviews are the most insightful aspect of the book. Renata Adler, Owen Edwards, David Bailey, Peter Galassi, Adam Gopnik, Francine du Plessix Gray, Peter MacGill, Jeffrey Fraenkel, Maria Morris Hambourg, and many former assistants are some of the dozens here who reflect perceptively on Avedon’s character.

Adler says that he “took even the mildest criticism harder than anyone I ever knew.” She believes the collaborative book with James Baldwin, Nothing Personal, was a disaster because Avedon was “just not political—he just wasn’t.” Although active in the anti-Vietnam War movement, he had been silent during the McCarthy era because speaking out “would have been bad for business.”

Avedon’s antagonistic feelings toward his contemporaries are conveyed in a story by Hofmann, a studio assistant (1978-85) and the master printer (1988-90) for In the American West. He tells about playing a joke on his boss by pasting pages from GQ of Bruce Weber’s latest photos in the car that the team was using in Montana during the early ‘80s. An enraged Avedon tore the pages down. “I had momentarily forgotten how competitive Dick was, how worried about being displaced…” The only living photographer Avedon didn’t disparage, claims Hoffmann, was Nick Waplington.

Like every portrait artist, Avedon had a bag of tricks for beguiling his subjects. “Whenever I modeled for other photographers, the camera went like a machine gun,” says Isabella Rossellini, “but Dick would take only six, ten stills of me. He was like a hunter, waiting for the right moment to shoot. He would say, ‘Change your thought—I don’t like what’s going through your mind.’ And I would quickly think of some-thing more positive, like my dog. And then those big eyes of mine would open to their peak of expression, and that would be the moment he would take.”

The interviews also inadvertently confirm the RAF’s misgivings about the fidelity of the book. The pitch of many quotes here is unnatural. The older ones are stilted, such as Avedon’s purported denunciation of truth, as if faultily reconstructed from memory, while those of more recent vintage sound auto-tuned. It may be that Rossellini at times refers to herself in the third person. But the self-description “those big eyes of mine” has the ring of something that a magazine writer, like Aronson, would say about Rossellini rather than a phrase she would speak herself. (Once you begin to doubt the truth of words in recorded interviews, the interpretive work of a writer soon looks even shakier. )

Books about commercial photographers seldom deal with the nitty-gritty of their businesses. Retrospectives are often initiated by estates or museums, which want to enhance the value of the prints they own as well as the reputation of their subject—easier to do if they are presented as an artist rather than a well-paid camera-for-hire. The massive Met catalog on Penn, for example, is mum about the large sums he was paid over the years by Estée Lauder and L’Oréal.

Stevens/Aronson are only slightly more candid. They aren’t shy about highlighting Avedon’s desire to get rich from advertising. But they don’t add up or estimate what he earned in his lifetime. That number would be in the tens of millions, I would venture, measured in today’s dollars over 60 years. Stevens herself earned, as she says, 25% of every dollar he was paid on every campaign—for Revlon, Chanel, Calvin Klein, Versace, IBM, the Jamaica tourist board, and numerous other accounts—so her income after 30 years of service must have been substantial, too.

If his artistic career was stunted by a pursuit of wealth and status within le beau monde—and I’m not sure it was—she was complicit and bears a bigger portion of the blame than she accepts here. She and Aronson can at times be a little too enraptured by the luxurious lifestyle they are chronicling, and some participants they quote demonstrate even less perspective. The French stylist Carolyne Cerf de Dudzelle, for example, praises Penn’s simplicité because he and his wife preferred to fly first-class to Paris rather than take the Concorde (Avedon’s favorite way to fly) and to stay at the Crillon rather than the Ritz.

Everyone in the book attests to Avedon’s charm. His wooing of others had multiple aims: to capture a gesture or expression he wanted from a reluctant model; to secure a lucrative contract from a potential client; and to enchant his friends and colleagues by making the mundane reality more exciting. One of his assistants, Frederick Eberstadt (1958-60) compared him to a “professional hostess” who “plies you with caviar and champagne, and then the next morning you wake up and find she has flitted off to her next engagement. Dick was heartless—just as heartless as Andy Warhol, which is saying something.”

Avedon wanted to be paid enormous fees and also be accepted by an art world that, until the ascent of Warhol in the ‘60s and Mapplethorpe in the ‘80s, looked down on photographers who had put a premium on making money. The lives and careers of Robert Frank, Helen Levitt, Aaron Siskind, Diane Arbus, Saul Leiter, Josef Sudek, Garry Winogrand, Harry Callahan, Roger Mayne and many other Avedon contemporaries were shaped by economic sacrifices he wasn’t willing to make.

The book’s longest chapter (44 pages) is titled “A Darkroom Rivalry” and concerns Avedon’s complex relationship with Penn. Temperamentally, they were day and night, Penn was a devoted husband who shunned publicity and toiled monkishly after hours making his own platinum prints; Avedon was an intensely social animal, always on the go, off to openings and the theater in the evenings, which he often concluded with long late-at-night phone calls to his friends. After the 1950s he seldom had time to do his own printing and often supervised assistants to perform that part of the process. Stylistically, the two men were opposites as well, with one the severe classicist, the other a baroque provocateur.

Each man had his champions. Penn was protected by design director Alexander Liberman at Condé Nast; Avedon had the successive backing of editors Carmel Snow at Harper’s Bazaar, Diana Vreeland at Vogue, and finally Tina Brown at the New Yorker. Models adored posing for Avedon and compared sessions in Penn’s studio with going to church or the dentist. There is no question who was more famous and beloved when alive. The trade-off was that the other commanded higher respect with critics and curators. As Peter MacGill says here: “What would 20th century photography be without those two? For sure, it wouldn’t be what it is. The axis of the two of them was just extraordinary—they were a community unto themselves, a community of two.” (I can’t be the only one who finished this chapter and thought: this pair deserves a separate book or maybe a dual blockbuster exhibition.)

Something Personal is huge and packed with entertaining trivia—that Avedon bought his carriage house between First and Second Avenues from Reid Miles, the graphic designer for Blue Note records—as well as characters seldom encountered in previous books about Avedon, such as the left-wing historian Mike Davis, author of the dystopic L.A.: City of Quartz. (He was hired by the New Yorker to be the photographer’s guide along the city’s seamy underbelly on a series of visits in 1993.)

In 2009 Stevens was ousted as director of the RAF, a position she had come to believe carried a longer tenure. Many anecdotes and asides betray undue enjoyment in paying back her former employer, as when she reports that upon his death, Avedon’s family swept down on the studio and removed everything not nailed down, including toilet paper from the rollers. Readers can decide what percentage of the narrative is motivated by revenge over her dismissal.

Despite her candor about her boss’s imperfections and the score-settling with the RAF, however, she never makes herself the center of the story. Nor is her writing ever resentful that her life for 30 years revolved around him. Quite the contrary. Serving a commercial genius’ needs, allowing him to be as unfettered and creative as the law would allow, seems to have been gratifying, remunerative, and a helluva lot of fun. Her late husband, very much a supportive background figure here, must have been exceptionally patient.

I wish the authors had provided more technical information and less sexual innuendo. Students and collectors of photography won’t learn much here that isn’t already known about the lighting or darkroom techniques that were trademarks of Avedon’s style. I’d be curious to read more about one of his assistants in the ‘50s, Frank Finocchio, who invented (or co-invented with Avedon) the so-called Beauty Light. A 1,500 watt flood with two scrims, it is described by another assistant, Alen MacWeeney, as “like the sun—it bathed the model in constant light.” The famous 1953 portrait of Marella Agnelli was done with an early version of the Beauty Light. (Finocchio was always pestering Avedon for greater recognition. He was fired in 1961, for as he put it, “lack of subservience.”)

First-rate photographers have not inspired first-rate biographies. Something Personal hasn’t improved the genre. Too many of its “facts” are suspect and the plot is too jumpy for a focused picture of a complex human being to emerge. Avedon would be crestfallen, and probably aghast, by “the way the story is told.”

Contrary to the wishes of the RAF, though, this book shouldn’t be banned but mined for its nuggets. If nothing else, it has peeked under the mask worn by its attractive subject—in interviews, photographs, and in Funny Face—of the dashing New Yorker who handled the camera and people with effortless brio and who achieved everything in life that any mortal could want. Stevens and Aronson have helped all future—and maybe better—writers to draw a more convincing portrait of the artist by opening up promising lines of inquiry that most of us didn’t know were there.

Read more about: Richard Avedon, Random House Books

One comment

  1. janet /

    Wonderful! Just a typo–Agnelli, not Gnelli
    xo

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