American Photographer Richard Avedon’s Vision of Paris

By Brandei Estes

One of the highlights of the upcoming Photographs auction (London, 17 May) is a portfolio of eleven images taken in Paris by celebrated American photographer Richard Avedon.

Most famously known for his work in fashion magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Richard Avedon considered himself first and foremost a portrait photographer. Immortalising the essence of the subject was his primary objective. His shoots were dramatic and dynamic, capturing the sitter’s livelihood instead of them becoming statues, as was the norm until that point.

Under the mentorship of Alexey Brodovitch, art director of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958, Avedon was able to fully explore his photographic style. Brodovitch brought a fresh new take to the magazine, mainly influenced by the avant-garde in Paris. When hiring photographers he wanted the images to be dynamic. This was due to his belief that mood sold more than descriptions. As a result, Avedon, who was a master of elegance and attitude, was one of the main photographers of the publication.

This portfolio, Avedon/Paris, was put together in 1978 to celebrate his retrospective exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The eleven images included were taken in Paris between 1947 and 1957, and are part of the first phase of his career which he dedicated almost exclusively to fashion photography. These photographs are brilliant examples of the work he executed to elevate this discipline into a fine art standpoint throughout the 20th century.

Classically French in its aesthetic, this body of work shows the most famous models of the 1940s and 1950s who were some of the photographer’s muses. The women portrayed boast the effortless glamour and playfulness that Avedon imagined for them. He gave his muses an environment with which to interact and make it their own. They were at leisure in Paris, jumping puddles, playing roulette or going to high-class events. Avedon’s photography gave women evidence of being human, urban and constantly on the go in luxurious and sophisticated environments.

After his years working for fashion magazines, while still working commercially, he turned to portraiture. His aesthetic was always very minimal; typically a white background and a simple light setting were enough for him. Over the course of the years he photographed people like Marilyn Monroe, Andy Warhol or John F. Kennedy. His way of working was to establish a sense of intimacy between the sitter and himself. Having both parts being equally invested and trusting in the emotional exchange, allowed the viewer to comprehend the photograph on not only the sitter’s view but also Avedon’s. As he famously said, ‘my portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.’

Fashion photography in the post-war era provided a sense of escapism through glamour, pleasure and adventure. The eleven silver prints in Avedon/Paris are a piece of history which symbolise a turning point for the concept of fashion magazines and their representation of women. As stated in Avedon’s obituary published by The New York Times, "his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America's image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century".

CLICK HERE to view the full catalogue.

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