Gideon Lewin, Avedon: Behind the Scenes 1964-1980

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by powerHouse Books (here), Hardcover, 232 pages, with 166 photographic reproductions (161 in black and white and 5 in color.) The trim size is 10×13 inches. $75. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Criticism: Gideon Lewin (1939-) is probably better known these days as a litigant than a photographer. His protracted defense against a lawsuit filed by the Richard Avedon Foundation, which had sought to prevent him from publishing this book and claimed copyright on many of his images, was a juicy news story throughout the 2010s. I wrote one of them. Eventually Lewin prevailed, but only after many thousands of dollars in legal fees and lingering acrimony. The muted response so far from the RAF to the publication of the book may mean that they have finally learned one of the basic lessons of public relations: ignoring something you dislike may be more effective than denouncing it to the world. In 2017, they made the mistake of trying to discredit Norman Stevens’ Avedon: Something Personal (reviewed here) by publishing a list of corrections (many of them petty) and accusing her of thievery, a heavy-handed response that only drew more sympathetic attention to her gossipy revelations and boosted sales of the book.

The silence of the RAF this time around could be because the book offers little for them to object to. Lewin is nothing if not respectful as he recounts 16 years assisting the photographer, in the studio and on location, as his master printer and friend. As he writes in the introduction: “It was a privilege and an honor to participate in Avedon’s prolific work, from the special April 1965 edition of Harper’s Bazaar to his solarized Beatles posters, as well as numerous books and groundbreaking exhibitions.” The tone of the text actually errs on being too worshipful, with hyperbolic pull quotes from models Avedon photographed (“I was always aware that I was working with the best photographer in the world,” says Veruschka) and testimonials of dubious accuracy from stylists and editors (“He brought us the real world, his gave us the ultimate in glamour, his women became our heroines,” says Polly Mellen.)

Of course, by extolling his friendship with Avedon and mentioning the various projects they worked on together, Lewin is hoping to earn some reflected glory. This is only fair. Avedon did not like to share credit with others and was happy for the world to view him as an auteur. His vision of himself as a solitary genius was largely deserved but not entirely. The book adds more evidence to the already established fact (shocking to some) that after the 1950s Avedon oversaw but seldom did his own printing. Lewin’s notes about his contributions to this stage of the process, however, and to the lighting he provided on a number of shoots are not intended to undermine Avedon as the controlling eye responsible for the final results. Lewin knows we don’t primarily want to read about Lewin. The title of the book acknowledges whose “scenes” we are being taken behind.

The book is divided into four sections: “The Avedon Indoctrination,” “Managing Avedon’s Studio at Home and on Location,” “The Avedon Woman,” and “Avedon and the Institutions.” Lewin describes his training with Hiro (“patient, a great teacher, and a perfectionist”) who shared a studio for years with Avedon and helped the young Israeli-American to become a confident seer in anticipating his boss’s needs. Like seemingly everyone who worked with Avedon, obliquely or intensely, Lewin sounds grateful for the time he spent in the presence of a towering artistic talent and whirlwind creative force. Avedon’s relentless energy and neediness could at times be trying for his apprentices but they don’t seem to have minded because all of the world went through his studio and episodes of temper were offset by ones of generosity and unpredictable fun.

As the book documents life in the studio, on location, along with Avedon’s preparations for landmark exhibitions, such as those at the Minneapolis Institute of Art (1970), MoMA (1974), and the Marlborough Gallery in New York (1975), many of Lewin’s photographs include numerous photographs by Avedon himself—the source of the RAF objections. How this conflict might have been avoided is hard to imagine. According to Lewin, he was given freedom to photograph the proceedings without restrictions.

Several pages are devoted to a 1967 Master Class taught by Avedon and art director Marvin Israel, at which Lewin and about a dozen other aspiring photographers were invited to participate. With a camera mounted on the ceiling and another at table level, he captured the smoky discussions that took place around a table scattered with photographs, occasions when the guest list included Hiro, Lucas Samaras, and Diane Arbus, as well as actor-director Elaine May. (Was Avedon ever unable to meet anyone that he wanted to? He seemed to make it his business to know everyone that he deemed worth knowing.)

A section on “The Avedon Woman” features stories about being on fashion shoots with Sophia Loren, Angelica Houston, Lauren Hutton, Raquel Welch, and Rene Russo. One of the surprises of the book is discovering how fine a photographer Lewin can be. A close-up of Lauren Hutton applying lipstick and another of her looking at Lewin sideways while she sneaks a cigarette are worthy of the master. Of course, photographs taken on fashion shoots or movie sets erase the hours of wasted time and utter tedium that preceded the shot.

The most valuable historic parts of the book recount the complicated and mostly unknown backstory to the printing of certain images. These include the four solarized Beatles portraits published in the January 12, 1968 issues of Look magazine. Lewin describes the laborious steps: copying Avedon’s 8×10 inch black-and-white portraits of Paul, John, George and Ringo onto positive color film and then exposing them to light. When the first results were unsatisfactory, he used an enlarger as his light source because it was easier to control. “That gave me the opportunity to re-expose or solarize, more than one color at a time, while also keeping some areas, like the face, as a total positive. It became a multi-color solarization.” The images were retouched by Bob Bishop and the colors enhanced while making dye transfer prints, the basis for the wildly popular posters seen in college dorms during the ‘70s. Avedon can’t have been happy that he was unable to reap the full financial benefits from this iconic work, as the Beatles maintained the copyright.

An equally intriguing story describes the printing and installation of the work for the Metropolitan Museum of Art show in 1978. For a large print of Dovima with Elephants, Lewin and the team had to create a new negative, as the old one had a “stain that had previously been retouched on prints for publication.” Only two large prints were known. Avedon disliked having the stain be visible and retouching the negative only made matters worse. So Lewin and Al Striano of Modernage made an 11×14 inch transparency negative, bleaching the stain, and then making a new 8×10 inch negative. When Avedon was satisfied, “the original negative was destroyed along with all the editions of the prints.” Every new print of the image, including the one in the Met show, has thus been made from this new negative.

Lewin writes that Avedon did not like to be photographed, although it’s hard to back up this claim by the evidence he presents in the book. Among the numerous touching and revealing portraits of Avedon, two of my favorites are an overhead shot of him dancing like a seagull with the stylist China Machado in Paris in 1965; the other presents the photographer alone, dazed but somehow exultant as the skinny 40-year-old sits on a box in a dim light, dressed in white shirt and undone tie, surrounded by prints from his already substantial career for an exhibition at the McCann Erickson Advertising agency in 1964. If one were to stage a play about Avedon, this tender image should be in the show.

Lewin’s observations confirm what others have written—that despite his ferocious ambition, inventive flaunting of conventions, and unrivaled financial success, the inner Avedon never stopped being vulnerable and afraid.

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