A Conversation With Richard Avedon (A Mostly True Story)
At the time of the encounter, I was twenty-eight and Richard was about fifty. Circumstances leading up to it began a few years earlier when I was hired by someone who wanted to open his own commercial film editing company. I was asked to contribute financially and join him as a junior partner in, what eventually turned into a twenty-five year successful journey. My partner was a star film editor with a decade of experience who had a sterling reputation for creativity, honesty and dedication. I was the newbie, cool looking, hard working, and eager to learn; an up-and-comer with an immense desire to succeed in a job I knew I could love… film editing.
I wasn’t really aware of Richard Avedon’s “walk on water” reputation because he was a still photographer and I was more focused on commercial directors and cinematographers. But I knew of some of his fashion work and upon reflection, perhaps that helped to kindle my love for photography. But at the time, the craft of commercial film editing was where I worked ten to fourteen hours a day. Pursuing photography or even studying it, seemed like a different career path that didn’t fit into my daily life.
One day, my partner told me that he was hired to edit a TV commercial for Calvin Klein directed by, none other than, Richard Avedon. He asked me to assist and hang with Richard in case he needed lunch, a pad and pen, or a lesson on how to use our phone system. (You had to dial 9 first for an outside line…not complicated.) After Richard screened the dailies and selected the best takes with my partner, he wondered off down the hallway to use the bathroom after I told him where it was. That was my first conversation with Richard Avedon, a short one for sure. It went something like…
Richard, standing directly in front of me asked, ”Would you tell me where the men’s room is?”
Me, starting to stand and point, ”Sure, straight down there, on the left just before the coffee counter.”
Richard, turning away, ”Thanks.”
And so my first and, unfortunately, my last meeting with Richard, began.
After several minutes, longer than it should have taken to relieve one’s self, I noticed the missing Richard trying to serve himself a cup of coffee. He appeared frustrated because the glass coffee pot was empty and the process to refill it was truly complicated. Our coffee maker was the kind of machine you would expect to see in a diner, only a little smaller. I walked quickly down the hallway to lend a hand.
It was then while scooping the exact amount of coffee and filling the empty pot with the exact amount of fresh NYC water to pour into the top of the maker, that our longer and more meaningful conversation began.
He was a very polite guy, probably never used the “F” word. He seemed unassuming, looking more like an accountant, but engaging and not embarrassed to ask for help making coffee. While I was measuring and scooping he asked how long I’d been working there. I let him know that the company was about three years old and I was a junior partner from it’s beginning. I was very flattered that he expressed an interest in me. I thought he would be mostly filled with himself and only politely acknowledge the lowly assistant. He went on to ask how I got started in the film business. I told him I started as a messenger and intern for a small, non-commercial film editing company. That led to a membership in the Film Editor’s Union and how that inclusion enabled me to get a different job in a much larger, commercial production company. And it was there that I met my future partner. We both agreed that making contacts and friends with mutual goals was an important part of success. He told me he always had an interest in fashion and photography having had parents that owned a dress shop on Fifth Avenue in NYC. He said he learned about cameras and posing when he was in the Merchant Marine, photographing soldiers for identity purposes. After learning and practicing that for a few years, he said he felt confident enough to walk into Harper’s Bazaar (his parents subscribed and lived for that magazine) to apply for a job as a fashion photographer. I thought that was really impressive given his age and lack of experience and said so. He shared a very positive way of thinking with me. “If you think you can, you probably can.” “But what about all those bosses and the bosses bosses, meaning the clients?”
I asked. He said, “It’s all in how you interact with them, and everyone actually. Your personality, demeanor, how you show interest, honest interest and conveying an understanding of their needs as well as getting across your ideas is what makes you successful, and your job… fun.”
He went on to mention that fashion photography paid a lot of bills but was not the photography he really wanted to do.He explained that on some assignments he was instructed to shoot what the client wanted. Other times he was able to convince a client of a different approach, an artistic approach where he could blur the line between fashion and fine art photography. I asked, “Can you give me an example?” He told me about a shoot he did for Dior in the mid 50’s. He explained, “The client wanted a beautiful, super elegant model dressed in a very expensive Dior gown, shot in a studio with dramatic, flattering light. I persuaded the client that we’ve all seen that a hundred times and it was time to break the mold. I suggested we go to the circus in Paris and have the model pose in front of a dozen elephants.” Laughing, he said, “The client was more concerned about the model being stepped on than the final look of the photograph. My producers and I assured him that all the elephants were tame, chained and completely harmless.
To further ease concerns, I made a joke saying that, afterwards the model may even want to adopt one…or two.” He went on to tell me the model selected was Dovima. I responded, “Dovima, sorry, I’m not familiar with that name.” “Really?” Richard questioned. I answered back, “Richard, I was ten when you did that shoot.” He continued, “Hmm… Anyway, she was famous, a real professional, beautiful, sophisticated and knew how to pose almost instinctively. She made that image. And of course, the elephants helped.”
What I learned later, probably twenty-five years later, that image changed the course of fashion photography. Less studio and more on location was the new path. It also became one of the last photographs to feature a glamorous model. The new model of the late 50’s was more of a California, girl next door type. Kudos to Richard Avedon.
Looking back, I think he was really telling me to respect my instincts, learn all you can about your endeavor and to be a good listener. Practice all that, and you may get what you want, maybe even become famous.
"Thank you Richard."
P.S. I just noticed how the model's arm mimics the elephant's trunks. Genius.