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Photographer Richard Avedon dies

Redefined fashion images, portraiture

Richard Avedon, who revolutionized fashion photography in the 1950s and went on to become one of the foremost portrait photographers in the medium's history, died yesterday in a San Antonio hospital. He was 81.

Mr. Avedon had suffered a cerebral hemorrhage last Saturday, while in Texas on assignment for The New Yorker. He had been working on a photo essay on this year's presidential election.

The French poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once described Mr. Avedon as "that wonderful, terrible mirror." More famous than all but his most celebrated subjects, Mr. Avedon was the inspiration for Fred Astaire's character in the '50s movie musical "Funny Face."

"I stand in awe of Avedon," Irving Penn, Mr. Avedon's sole peer in the realm of fashion photography, once said. "For scope and magnitude, he's the greatest of fashion photographers. He's a seismograph."

Not everyone cared for what the seismograph recorded. Mr. Avedon's work has been criticized as superficial, pitiless, or both. According to Arthur C. Danto, the art critic of The Nation magazine, his portraits "strip their subjects of dignity and worth" and record "an aggression, a will-to-power . . . on the photographer's part."

Mr. Avedon had been a major figure in photography since the late '40s. His work effected a revolution in fashion photography, bringing to the genre an unprecedented energy and imaginativeness. A 1978 Newsweek cover story hailed him as "the photographer of beauty in action." Before Mr. Avedon came along, fashion photographers didn't do things like pose models at the Pyramids or between circus elephants, as he famously did.

"He's the most wonderful man in the business," said the model Suzy Parker, one of Mr. Avedon's many discoveries, "because he realizes that models are not just coat hangers." He took his models outside the studio and presented them as people rather than mannequins. Today, such an approach seems unexceptional, even obvious. Yet it took Mr. Avedon to make it so. "I wasn't interested in fashion but in making images that reflected a burst of energy and joy," he said in a 1994 People magazine interview.

Over the years, Mr. Avedon shifted from fashion to portraits. His portraiture was, if anything, more distinctive -- albeit not nearly as influential. Although almost all fashion photographers since the '50s have owed at least something to Mr. Avedon, it's hard to think of another portrait photographer whose work resembles his.

The French critic Roland Barthes once wrote that the people in Mr. Avedon's portraits looked like "corpses that have living eyes which look out at you, which think." Or as Mr. Avedon wrote to his father in 1970, "I want to make portraits as intense as people."

Mr. Avedon's portraiture specializes in a baroque simplicity so unadorned as to be a kind of reverse ostentation. That simplicity is so unmistakable in appearance as to be a trademark: the white background, the black frame lines, the lack of props or even context. It's simplicity as a higher form of staginess.

"I've worked out of a series of no's," Mr. Avedon said in the catalog to "Richard Avedon: Portraits," a 2002 retrospective at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. "No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. . . . I have the person I'm interested in and the thing that happens between us."

Among Mr. Avedon's most famous portraits are of the poet Ezra Pound, with his eyes squeezed shut, as if in agony; the writer Isak Dinesen, emaciated and grinning, like a death's-head wearing makeup; the singer Marian Anderson, transfixed in song; Dwight D. Eisenhower, in which the former president's "expression is like he came out of the womb too soon," as Mr. Avedon's friend and fellow photographer Diane Arbus put it.

Mr. Avedon once remarked that he could not take a picture that doesn't make a moral statement. That would seem paradoxical coming from the world's most famous fashion photographer. Yet Mr. Avedon's work also included the images from a Louisiana mental hospital he included in the revealingly titled "Nothing Personal" (1964).

In the early '70s, Mr. Avedon photographed the last two years of his father's life as he coped with cancer. His extended portrait of those who wield power in America, "The Family," took up an entire issue of Rolling Stone in 1976. He spent much of a decade taking photographs of drifters, outcasts, and the working poor that make up "In the American West" (1985).

Other books by Mr. Avedon include "Observations" (1959), "Portraits" (1976), "Avedon Photographs, 1947-1977" (1978), "An Autobiography" (1993), "Evidence: 1944-1994" (1994), and "The Sixties" (1999).

Richard Avedon was born in New York City on May 15, 1923. His father, Jacob Israel Avedon, was a Fifth Avenue clothing retailer. His mother, Anne (Polonsky) Avedon, was a housewife.

Mr. Avedon began taking pictures with his family's Kodak Box Brownie camera. As if to declare his fealty to photography, he once taped a negative of his sister on his arm and let the sun expose it on his skin. But his strongest cultural interest was poetry. He helped edit his high school literary magazine with a classmate, the novelist James Baldwin, and was named poet laureate of the New York public schools.

Mr. Avedon never graduated from high school. Instead, he enlisted in the Merchant Marine and became a photographer's mate second class. He photographed a few shipwrecks, but his work mainly consisted of ID photos. "I must have taken pictures of maybe 100,000 baffled faces," he said in the "Portraits" catalog, "before it ever occurred to me that I was becoming a photographer."

After leaving the Merchant Marine, Mr. Avedon used all his savings to hire a well-known professional model and got the fashionable New York department store Bonwit Teller to lend him clothes. He shot a series of fashion photographs for the store at no charge, and Bonwit's liked the images so much they paid Mr. Avedon for the work and commissioned new photographs. He was on his way.

Mr. Avedon became a student and protg of Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper's Bazaar. Starting in 1946, he spent two decades as the magazine's staff photographer. He took up the same position at Vogue in 1966, shooting nearly every cover until 1990, when he left after a falling out with the magazine's editor, Anna Wintour. In 1992, Mr. Avedon became The New Yorker's first staff photographer.

Mr. Avedon's photographs are included in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian Institution, the Metropolitan, the Museum of Modern Art, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the National Portrait Gallery, London.

Major retrospectives of his work have been held at the Smithsonian, the Metropolitan, the Whitney Museum of American Art, the Amon Carter Museum, the Corcoran Gallery of Art, and the Art Institute of Chicago.

Mr. Avedon cut a wide swath in the art world. He was easily recognizable, with his thick, upswept hair and signature horn-rimmed glasses. His wiry frame and incessant energy made him seem ageless.

In a 2002 "NewsHour" interview on PBS, Mr. Avedon said, "I see pictures of myself and I always knew that what I was feeling didn't look like that guy in the pictures. But my face is beginning to look like an Avedon."

Mr. Avedon leaves his wife, Evelyn (Franklin) Avedon; a son, John; and four grandchildren. His first marriage, to Dorcas (Nowell) Avedon, ended in divorce.

The New Yorker said funeral plans are incomplete.

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