Richard Avedon: Life through the lens

“If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.” — Richard Avedon

This quote from iconic 20th-century photographer Richard Avedon speaks to the deep passion he felt toward photography. It was a passion he summoned in capturing on film the essence of people, the various experiences and emotions of life, and the evolving landscape of culture.

The Beatles Portfolio: John Lennon, Ringo Starr, George Harrison and Paul McCartney, circa 1967, London, four dye-transfer prints, printed 1990, 21 5/8 x 17 3/8 in. each, signed and numbered 1/6 in ink in the margin. Sold for $600,000 at auction in October of 2011. Phillips and LiveAuctioneers image.

During his 60-year career, Avedon produced portraits of leaders and legends, including Marilyn Monroe, Malcolm X, Gloria Vanderbilt, Dr. J. Robert Oppenheimer, and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He revealed the glamorous world of fashion in its most authentic state, and, in stark contrast, the somber realities of life inside a mental institution.

One thing that is evident in Avedon’s work is that it didn’t matter if the subject was famous, infamous or unknown. From his perspective behind the lens of a camera, all were of equal importance.   

Portrait of elderly woman, borderless gelatin silver print, unmounted, 6¾ x 9¼ in. Sold for $340 during a January 2018 auction. Jasper52 and LiveAuctioneers image

Fun fact: Avedon was a pioneer in America’s mid-century advertising culture. His photography helped shape campaigns that made Calvin Klein, Revlon and Versace, among others, household names on an international scale.

Born in 1923 to parents with familial ties to fashion – one in manufacturing and the other in sales – it’s easy to see how Avedon’s interest in clothing came about. A love of photography took hold in his pre-teen years after joining New York City’s Young Men’s Hebrew Association Camera Club, according to

Avedon’s interest in photography continued to grow throughout his high school years, and he honed his skills after joining the Merchant Marine. He served as a photographer’s mate second class, from 1942 to 1944, assigned to shoot photo portraits for mariners’ identification cards. After fulfilling his commitment to the Merchant Marine, Avedon continued to study the mechanics of photography, both in academic settings and on the job. This resulted in a variety of opportunities that allowed him to photograph world leaders, entertainers and everyday people.

Groucho Marx, gelatin silver print, taken in 1972 and printed in 1975, signed, numbered 11/50 in ink, 15¾ x 15 in. Sold for $8,500 during an October 2011 auction. Phillips and LiveAuctioneers image

Fun Fact: Securing a job as a photographer at either Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue would have been a career pinnacle for Avedon, but he actually worked at both, for extended periods of time. His career highlights also included joining The New Yorker as its first full-time staff photographer.

After a 1955 exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, Avedon became a global name, with his photographs appearing at many other prestigious institutions around the world. They included the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Whitney Museum of American Art, Minneapolis Institute of Art, University Art Museum at Berkeley, and the Carnegie Museum of Art, as well as countless galleries.

JudyGarland exhibition portrait taken at the Palace Theater, New York, in 1951, gelatin silver matte, photographer signature on recto, 11 x 13¾ in. Sold for $3,750 during a March 2010 auction. Profiles in History and LiveAuctioneers image.

In March, an exhibition featuring 27 photos of President John F. Kennedy and family taken by Avedo, concluded at the Springfield Museum in Massachusetts. According to information on the Springfield Museum’s website, Avedon was the lone photographer granted permission to take official White House-approved photos of the Kennedy family during the time between Kennedy’s election and Inauguration Day.

From various accounts, it appears Avedon lived his life the way he had hoped he would, and it seems his death kept with the script. On Oct. 1, 2004, Avedon died from a cerebral hemorrhage – while shooting photographs for The New Yorker in Texas.

“If each photograph steals a bit of the soul, isn’t it possible that I give up pieces of mine every time I take a picture?” — Richard Avedon