Richard Avedon - Photographer Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Richard Avedon - Photographer

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Richard Avedon was born on 15 May, 1923, in New York. The American fashion and portrait photographer's elegant innovative fashion work soon brought him international recognition. His sharply-focused, bluntly realistic portrait photographs of presidents, writers and celebrities, tried to show off his models' unique characteristics. He wanted to manipulate light and mood to produce his portraits.

His deft use of light and shadow etches every line and wrinkle onto the film, and gives the photograph an eerily realistic illusion of depth. His hues are crisp, but diffuse softly into each other. Avedon didn't just capture the person's emotion at a single point in time, he tried to capture the true person.

Avedon continued working until his death in 2004, aged 81.

Behind the Photography

Avedon was interested in capturing images of men and women behind political events during an era when America nearly collapsed over the Vietnam War and the Civil Rights Movement. He wished to show the similarities between the political and artistic arenas, in their struggle against one another over race, war and politics, and all the while these clashes created grand personalities for Avedon to photograph.

Within his portraits Avedon wanted not only to capture what the subject was like in those few seconds, but also to show a greater depth to their personalities. He showed what hidden depth there was to the subject's character with colour choice or lack of definition or the simple placement of objects to obscure or emphasise the person. By this means he brought out sides of celebrities that the public might not have seen before, such as their feelings of self-confidence or insecurity.

The Sabatier Effect

The 'Sabatier effect', named after Armand Sabatier1, who discovered it in 1862, is an intentional darkroom technique, employed to produce tone reversals. As a result of accidentally exposing a wet collodion plate to light during development Sabatier noticed that, when photosensitive materials were given a prolonged exposure to light, some of the tones reversed, thus black would become white and visa versa.

The procedure is as follows: partially develop a negative or print, momentarily expose it to light, then continue the normal development process. Tone reversal in completed prints principally occurs in background dark areas. At edges, between areas of the print where reversal has occurred and where it has not, a distinct black line is visible, particularly if it was the negative rather than the developing print that was flashed with light. Results of the Sabattier effect are somewhat unpredictable.

Using the Sabatier effect, which is now more commonly termed as 'solarisation'2 Avedon created his famed portraits.

Colour Solarisation

The use of colour solarisation exploded in the psychedelic 1960s and 1970s on album covers and posters, and Avedon took a firm grasp of this new technique for his work at that time. Examples of such work can be seen in his renowned portraits of The Beatles for Life Magazine which lent a strong and contemporary style to the pictures.

Avedon's colourful solarised effect was done by using photosensitive materials that were then exposed to light for a long time, which resulted in his photographs having areas of shadow highlighted or darkened. This meant that you would lose detail from the face even to the point where, in the John Lennon photo for example, you are left with the two sides of his face being purple and orange and where the light hits his face being highlighted by white/pale blue.

Colour solarisation gives much the same effect as Andy Warhol's screen prints of Marilyn Monroe, Elizabeth Taylor and Queen Elizabeth II. Technology has advanced since the 1960s and 1970s and now the same effect given by the Sabatier effect can be created using Computer Aided Design programs (CAD programs).

The Beatles Portraits

The main visual element of Avedon's portraits of The Beatles is his striking use of colour which either gives the portrait a very human look, like the one of Ringo Starr - or a very cartoonist look, like the one of John Lennon.

In the four Beatles portraits, Avedon created four very different looks. George Harrison is blurred and altered all apart from his face, making it look like it has been placed on the portrait after it has been taken. It is the only part of the portrait that looks three-dimensional because the shadows around the bone structure are so prominent.

John Lennon's face has been spilt in two by the way Avedon has placed the lighting. Where the strongest light has hit, white highlights occur, where there is no light the image is orange and where there is limited light it is purple, thus creating a two-tone image. The way Lennon's glasses have been made into optical swirls in black and white adds to the 1960s/70s feel and psychedelic look.

Ringo Starr's portrait is the most natural looking. It looks like a black and white photo, albeit in maroon, but the areas of deepest shadow have been solarised with blue, and the white of the dove enhanced. It almost looks like the sort of photograph you get in old western movies - faded with age.

Paul McCartney's portrait is the most obscure. All shadow and light is altered in colour, which in turn is alternated between pink, turquoise and bright green, and the only areas of real definition have been enhanced by the use of white along the bridge of the nose and eye. Although all the portraits are very different, they are similar in that areas of strong shadow or light have been strengthened and made more obvious.

All the portraits are striking in their approach to the music icons' image and each shows a distinct hint of their individual personality:

  • George Harrison was spiritually oriented, which is shown in his portrait through the slightly fuzzy atmosphere and the symbols on his body (eye on the hand).

  • John Lennon was the archetypal 'in your face', acerbic character saying at one point that The Beatles were 'bigger than Jesus'. This is shown in his portrait through the definite manner of the two colours.

  • Paul McCartney was considered to be the prettiest, most attractive of The Beatles, which is mimicked through the pretty soft colours. The cloudy focus of the photo also helps bring across the idea of McCartney being an almost fluffy character who most fans wanted to take home and mother.

  • Ringo Starr was the most ordinary photo. He was the least well known of The Beatles and least popular, which accounts for him being in the background of the photo, always in the background, sharing with another definite being (the dove).

The Modern Art World

Avedon's style is very important to the current art world, because many of the same effects can be performed by simply using a computer, whereas Avedon would have had to use light sensitive papers and spend long hours waiting for a result. The Beatles photographs have been distorted with the use of bright colours. Today, using CAD programs such as Adobe Photoshop, you can solarise an image, change its colours and alter its perspective with ease and without risk of damage to the original because you can easily undo your effect. This means, however, that there is much less anticipation and surprise about the solarisation effect than Avedon's pictures created, as it has been adopted by the digitally formed art world.

His pictures are, therefore, important to the art world because they open up the possibility of creating similarly bizarre and psychedelic images. They allow for experimentation with art effects which wouldn't necessarily be available, and also free expression, to enable personal interpretation of art.

1Sabatier, often misspelled Sabattier or Sabbatier, was a doctor of medicine in the small French village of Saint-Mammers.2Originally, solarisation meant the loss of density in areas receiving too great exposure.

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