But Avedon went even further than Penn. He shattered the iconic images of the stars of show business (Marilyn Monroe , see for a review ...), literature, the arts and the political elite in the United States. His portraits show all the facets of his models’ personality, however great their mastery of the codes of representation. The use of white grounds, the bareness of the compositions, helped to bring a searching psychological dimension to each subject.
Generally speaking, Avedon sought to capture the true nature of things rather than to reproduce them superficially. During his photography sessions, he sought out that very special moment when he could capture and set down the psychological intensity emanating from the sitter. For, to photograph someone “meant looking beyond the charm of the face and establishing a relation between the vital presence of the other and his own, that is to say, finding the moment when everything converged and happened.”
“(…) In the American West was the result of a commission from the Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth, in Texas. From 1979 to 1984, Avedon photographed men and women in the American West, most of them working folk. In the process, he travelled across several states of the Great Plains and the Rockies, paying special attention to specific sites and events such as ranches, coalmines, cattle fairs, oil wells, slaughterhouses, truck stops, modest diners and offices. He photographed the homeless, housewives, cowboys, miners, prisoners and rodeo riders. His strategy was to build up a network of portraits, weaving a series of psychological, sociological, physical and familial connections between these individuals who had never met. All the photos in this series were taken in broad daylight and outdoors, looking for a certain quality of shadow, against a simple white paper backdrop hung on the side of a truck.
The uncompromising photographs that resulted caused quite a controversy when they were first shown in Texas because of Avedon’s “demystifying” vision of that Promised Land, the American West, that land of pioneers and conquerors.” (Marta Gili, from the preface to the catalogue)
Richard Avedon put his talent as a photographer at the service of the social causes and political evens that shook American society in the 1960s and 70s. He made several reports on the Civil Rights movements in the South (1963), the Ku Klux Klan, and psychiatric hospitals.
A pacifist, he photographed hippies demonstrating against the Vietnam War in 1969, and travelled to the country in 1971 to make portraits of the army leaders and of napalm victims.
For the French magazine Égoïste he covered the meeting of East and West Berliners at the Brandenburg Gates on 31 December 1989 and 1 January 1990, less than two months after the fall of the Wall.
Avedon talks with actress Audrey Hepburn during a photo session in Los Angeles in 1956.