17 Oct Jonathan Cartu Reviews: Fashion photographer Richard Avedon’s life was far from
It was easy to envy — even hate — Richard Avedon.
The legendary photographer, who died in 2004, traveled around the world shooting the most fabulous fashions, the most magnificent models, the most scintillating stars. He hobnobbed with Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, Audrey Hepburn, Lauren Hutton. His artistic peers — shutterbugs like Robert Frank and Lee Friedlander — as well as critics scoffed or seethed at his lavishness, his four-story townhouse, fancy museum shows and commercial ad work. It didn’t help that he could be self-aggrandizing, with his expensive, overstuffed coffee table books and blown-up, larger-than-life prints.
Yet, underneath all that glitter and gloss, Avedon’s personal life was much messier, and more human.
“He suffered,” said Philip Gefter, who has written the new biography of Avedon, “What Becomes a Legend Most” (HarperCollins).
According to Gefter’s book, Avedon was constantly struggling. He agonized over his Jewishness, the collapse of his two marriages and his confused sexuality, including a young romance with a cousin.
“He spent his adult lifetime in therapy and psychoanalysis — not for no reason,” Gefter told The Post. “Growing up, he endured the prejudice of anti-Semitism. He endured a kind of homophobia; even though he had homosexual feelings, they were unwanted.” Plus, many of the women around him — his aunt, his sister, his second wife, Evelyn, and his dear friend, fellow photographer Diane Arbus, all suffered from some kind of mental illness.
“One of his qualities was that he was able to not only endure [all] that but prevail in terms of living a very constructive life anyway,” said Gefter. That quality also allowed him to create psychologically astute, clear-eyed and radical portraits of nearly every type of person in America in the second half of the 20th century, not just celebs but war mongers, civil rights leaders, ranchers and beekeepers.
“I felt like Avedon didn’t get his due in his lifetime. He was often dismissed as a fashion photographer, and then as a celebrity photographer, and I have always thought that he was more consequential than that,” Gefter said. “And I wanted to make that case.”
Richard Avedon was born in 1923 in Manhattan, the oldest of two children. His father, Jacob (Jack) Israel Avedon, was an immigrant from present-day Belarus who ran a successful dress shop. His mother, Anna, was a free spirit from a wealthy family who encouraged Dick’s love of the arts.
Yet Avedon’s childhood was hardly idyllic. Jack lost his business in the Great Depression, and was unduly harsh on young Dick (as everyone would call Avedon), who was sensitive and, alarmingly to Jack, uninterested in sports. Dick’s beloved younger sister, the beautiful, enigmatic, strangely silent Louise, was diagnosed with schizophrenia as a teen. Dick was bullied as a kid for being a “sissy,” and got a nose job when he was 17 to look less Jewish. Jack, who wanted his son to fit in and assimilate any way he could, paid for it.
Dick took solace in his first cousin, Margie, a fellow misfit whose mother (Anna’s sister) was in and out of psychiatric institutions. Fun, brash and impulsive, Margie would coax Dick out of his shell — getting him to sneak into Broadway shows with her, for instance. The two, according to several family members, also had a romantic relationship.
“I was deeply in love with Margie from the age of 4 until I was 18,” Avedon would tell one of his collaborators, editor Nicole Wisniak, when he was in his 60s. “Our feelings for each other were so intense, so forbidden, so conspiratorial.”
Avedon got his first camera, a Box Brownie, at age 9 and then worked at a photo studio in high school. His first pictures were of Louise and Margie, who would arrange elaborate schemes for Dick to photograph, involving crashing funerals and surprising strangers on the street.
When he failed his senior year at DeWitt Clinton HS in The Bronx, Avedon signed up for the Merchant Marine, where he lucked into a position as a photographer at the maritime service training station at Sheepshead Bay. Not only did he take the ID photos of every new arrival, he also supplied photojournalism for the organization’s two magazines.
Avedon still felt like an outsider — and not just because he was likely the only seaman scouring Harper’s Bazaar instead of cheesecake pin-ups in his bunk. He somehow always got stuck with the worst chores: scrubbing toilets and swabbing floors. One day someone drew a swastika on the wall of his bed in black crayon.
“From then on, throughout his tour of duty, he proceeded with a…