“Richard Avedon: Relationships” At Palazzo Reale in Milan

Richard Avedon – Vogue covers

In December I had the opportunity to visit a retrospective titled “Richard Avedon: Relationships” at the Palazzo Reale in Milan. It was an amazing experience for me because I love photography and fashion very much, so it was a great opportunity to explore the many aspects of this legendary photographer’s work.

Avedon’s images are divided into several rooms and the portraits are grouped by theme; each gallery reveals a group of related images that provide visual pleasure and appreciation for his immense body of work.

The photographer famously said: “My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph.” In the course of his career, he created a series of iconic images in fashion and portraiture. Between 1989 and 2004, Avedon placed a magnificent group of photographs at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, Arizona, meant to represent five decades of his work.

The “Richard Avedon: Relationships” exhibition includes a selection of fashion photographs and portraits that allow the audience to explore his approach to photographing people. It explores two ideas: the first is how multiple photographs of the same subject reveal aspects of Avedon’s process, his relationship with the people he photographed and certain sides of their personality as well. The second is that fashion images and portraits shift when he includes multiple people because in this case Avedon’s goal was to convey relationships among the subjects. Palazzo Reale had already hosted an exhibition dedicated to Avedon titled “Evidence 1944-1994” that chronicled 50 years of the artist’s work.

This new retrospective offers a chance to see the illustrious career of one of the best American photographers of the 20th century, focusing on his relationships with the people he has photographed over the decades.

Sophia Loren – New York, 1970

Domenico Piraina, director of Palazzo Reale, stated: “Avedon was an innovator in many aspects. He eliminated everything that was superfluous from the scene, to underscore the sole presence of the person being portrayed. […] Models were no longer statues dressed in beautiful clothes, they were real people. Characterful people, in many cases. […] The precociousness of his huge talent made him a famous and much sought-after photographer. Indeed, he was the inspiration for the character of Dick Avery in the famous 1957 film Funny Face, featuring Fred Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. […] One cannot imagine the history of photography without Richard Avedon.”

Avedon is known to have said: “If a day goes by without my doing something related to photography, it’s as though I’ve neglected something essential to my existence, as though I had forgotten to wake up.” He was born and lived in New York; he enlisted in the armed forces during World War II with the role of photographing identity documents. After leaving the navy, he became a professional photographer and began freelancing for a number of major fashion publications, especially Harper’s Bazaar. Over the years he has taken portraits for many magazines, such as Life. In 1965 he left Harper’s Bazaar after criticism for working with black models and landed at Vogue, with which he collaborated for more than two decades. In 1992 he became a photographer for the New Yorker, redefining its aesthetic with the style of his portraits. His photography practice was highly successful and many museums around the world have dedicated retrospectives to him, celebrating the genius of his work.

Avedon’s fashion photographs taken prior to 1960 do so much more than describe the clothing; they transport the viewer to a world of glamour and entertainment, in which women move elegantly and effortlessly. The cinematic quality of the images stimulates the viewer to invent a narrative, and seeing these beautifully dressed women and men helps to create a story of pleasure and ease, made up of scenes with minimal background and little environmental detail or more elaborate locations, but either way his photos make the viewer want to be a part of the world he portrays.

The “Dovima with Elephants” picture focuses on Dovima, one of Avedon’s most photographed models, with whom he produced a series of outstanding works. She said of their relationship: “He asked me to do extraordinary things, but I always knew I was going to be part of a great picture.” The iconic image with the elephants was shot in Paris in 1955; the model wore a beautiful evening dress by Dior and her trust in Avedon resulted in a photo that holds a prestigious place in the history of fashion and photography, ensuring the legacy of this exclusive relationship.

By now, supermodels are an integral part of modern culture, but Suzy Parker was probably the first such figure. Avedon portrayed her in 1956 at the height of her career, at the Café de Beaux Arts wearing a Lanvin dress and also in a Parisian studio in front of a neutral backdrop that draws the viewer’s gaze to the main subject.

Dovima with Elephants – Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, 1955
Suzy Parker – Café de Beaux Arts, Paris, 1956
Suzy Parker – Paris, 1956

In his early fashion photographs, Avedon uses multiple figures within the frame to enrich the narrative, as seen in “Carmen (Homage to Munkàcsi)”, where the model wore a Pierre Cardin coat. The picture was shot in 1957 in Paris; these are the years following the advent of Dior’s New Look, with dresses characterized by a small, narrow waist and full skirts that enhance the hourglass figure, in contrast to the functional styles of the earlier War period. Avedon portrayed the New Look in his photographs, as with Renée in “The New Look of Dior”, Place de la Concorde, Paris, 1947. Another famous Avedon photo is that of the Perugia shoe (designed by André Perugia), elevated to an essential component of his model’s wardrobe, to the point of becoming the centerpiece of the image. The fur-covered heel takes on monumental proportions, on par with the Eiffel Tower that serves as the backdrop in the image. Another famous subject photographed by Richard Avedon was Audrey Hepburn, in a multi-subject image taken in 1959. In the photo, the female figures (Hepburn, Barbara Mullen, and the model Simone) remain the main subject of the image, standing out against the dark background of the bar, while the male subjects in dark suits blend in with the surroundings. The men merely witness the scene, and Avedon uses them as additional actors, making the image more fascinating and enriching its narrative.

Sunny Harnett – Le Touquet, 1954
Carmen (Homage to Munkàcsi) – Paris, 1957
Shoe, designed by Perugia – Place du Trocadéro, Paris, 1948
Audrey Hepburn with Buchwald and others – Paris, 1959

Around 1969 Avedon developed the distinctive style for which he is known, characterized by a white background that eliminates distractions and enhances the qualities of gestures, posture, and facial expressions. He worked primarily with a large-format camera, shooting from a close distance (so that the subject filled most of the frame) and drawing attention to the relationship between the figure and the dark border.

Director Michelangelo Antonioni was one of his subjects, starring in one of Avedon’s double portraits along with the director’s wife, Enrica, who worked together with him and facilitated his return to directing after his illness. The photo shows how Enrica’s love allows Antonioni to stand in a confident and proud pose in the portrait. Avedon also photographed the four band members of the Beatles in August 1967 in the photography studio at Thompson House, London. Four images produced during the session were altered with psychedelic colors and graphic effects, celebrating the artistic direction taken by the musicians with their latest albums. The images were published in a January 1968 issue of Look magazine and were then sold as posters.

The magazines Avedon worked for needed portraits of a range of artists, musicians, writers and dancers; he became one of the most sought-after photographers for those jobs, as his pictures brought a kind of drama and intensity to the periodicals’ pages. Avedon stated: “I think all art is about control – the encounter between control and the uncontrollable” and this is especially evident in his later portraits. One especially remembers the photo taken by Avedon of the poet Allen Ginsberg along with his extended family, where adults and children pose in front of the camera with plates in their hands, in a spontaneous shot of what looks like a family reunion, where his relatives exhibit varying degrees of discomfort and awkwardness, both in pose and relation to one another. Prominent among the dancers photographed by Avedon is Rudolf Nureyev, portrayed at the age of 25 in an immense empty rehearsal room. After his arrival to Europe on a request for political asylum, Nureyev later danced with the Royal Ballet in London and became choreographer and director of the Paris Opéra.

Michelangelo Antonioni and his wife Enrica – New York, 1999
The Beatles – London, 1967
Allen Ginsberg’s Family – Paterson, New Jersey, 1970
Rudolf Nureyev – New York, 1983

Avedon frequently photographed socialites and politicians at the request of the magazines with which he worked, but he was also interested in portraying the lives of ordinary Americans whom he felt were worthy of being portrayed. An example of this is the series of Western portraits that depict every detail of his subjects. Basketball player Lew Alcindor (later known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar) appears photographed by Avedon in the style of his early portraits. Dressed in sports uniform, he looks very comfortable and he seems to be in control of his environment, with tall urban residential buildings as a distant backdrop. Alcindor achieved an incredible stardom and fame, with his twenty-year career for the Milwaukee Bucks and the Los Angeles Lakers, and is considered one of the greatest basketball players of all time.

The “Mary Watts, factory worker, with her niece Tricia Steward” portrait is also part of Avedon’s body of work titled “In The American West”; the photographer gravitated towards people for their emotional potential and their role within his imagined portrait of the American West. The white background was the same as his studio portraits, but in this case he worked along roads, at parking lots or oil fields. He presented people for who they really were, documenting their lives in relation to important themes such as heroism and democracy.

Lew Alcindor, basketball player – 61st Street and Amsterdam Avenue, New York, 1963
Mary Watts, factory worker, and her niece Tricia Steward – Sweetwater, Texas, 1979

In his career, Avedon also depicted political and institutional figures; I was particularly impressed by the 1961 portrait of the Vicomtesse Jacqueline de Ribes with Raymundo de Larrain and the portrait of Marella Agnelli, Italian noblewoman and socialite. Agnelli’s style was iconic and she often appeared in Vogue magazine. Her portrait by Avedon for Harper’s Bazaar enhances her striking face and elegant neck. The photographer valued it as a pinnacle of his fashion portraiture and it appears on the cover of his book “Photographs: 1947 – 77”. Other great studio portraits taken by Avedon were “The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution”, his black-and-white portrait of human rights activist Malcolm X (known for promoting Black empowerment and creating social welfare programs) and the “US Congress Wall / The Family” series, taken when Avedon was commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine to cover the campaigns of the leading presidential candidates in the 1976 election. These portraits filled the pages of Rolling Stone in October 1976, being simultaneously individual portraits and a collective group portrait; none of the subjects react to one another, instead they all stand as individual pillars, united by a shared desire to influence the fate of their nation.

Vicomtesse Jacqueline de Ribes with Raymundo de Larrain – New York, 1961
Marella Agnelli, aristocrat – New York, 1953
The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution – Washington D.C. 1963
Malcolm X, Black Nationalist leader – New York, 1963
US Congress Wall / The Family – 1976

I really loved the last section of the exhibition, characterized by fashion photos taken in the studio, when Avedon worked with models like Veruschka, Linda Evangelista and China Machado. They are often portrayed in motion, in such a way that Avedon brings out the clothes in the form and fluidity of the fabric, the garment being the main subject of the image (as in the case of Veruschka’s picture, in which she wears Bill Blass). German actress Nastassja Kinski first started out as a model and then went on to appear in more than sixty films between Europe and the US. Her iconic image in which she is draped with a python was taken by Avedon for the October 1981 issue of American Vogue and became so legendary that it was later released as a poster, selling over two million copies.

Chinese-born American model China Machado had a critically important relationship with Richard Avedon that led her to be the first Asian model to appear in a major American fashion magazine.
When publishers were initially reluctant to publish the photos of China Machado because she was not white, Avedon threatened to give up his contract if the photos were rejected. Machado continued modeling for Avedon for the next three years, and then became Harper’s Bazaar Senior Fashion editor.

Nastassja Kinski – Los Angeles, 1981
China Machado – London, 1965
Veruschka – New York, 1967

Over the years Richard Avedon has also worked with Linda Evangelista, one of the most famous supermodels of the ’90s who appeared on more than 700 magazine covers and was often featured in a series of Versace campaigns envisioned and created by Avedon. He was seen as a photographer who appreciated and understood designers’ goals and could translate it into photography, so he collaborated and built relationships with many fashion designers like Gianni Versace and then with his sister Donatella, who talked about Avedon in a video showcased during the retrospective: “Trust. For me that is the foundation of the best relationships. With Avedon there was absolute trust. Trust in his light. Trust in his storytelling. Trust in our shared vision. Trust in our relationship. […] Gianni and I loved working with Avedon. We loved coming up with the story of the campaign together and watching as he and the incredible models brought that story to life. […] Avedon was all about relationships. His relationship with us as colleagues and friends. His relationship with the subject of the shoot and the story we were telling. And most importantly the relationship with the viewer. […] Avedon’s images tell us their story with no words. They capture a moment in time and yet remain timeless. They continue to inspire all of us. They talk of power, beauty, seduction, and of humanity.”

In his campaigns with Versace, Avedon kept working with models and cultural icons like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and other stars; his collaboration with Donatella Versace resulted in a volume published in 1998 titled “The Naked & The Dressed: 20 Years of Versace by Avedon.”

Linda Evangelista for Versace S/S 1993 – New York, 1992
Linda Evangelista for Versace S/S 1993 – New York, 1992
Donatella Versace talking about Richard Avedon in a retrospective video
Richard Avedon quote

This retrospective was truly amazing, and I am proud that my native city is providing the public with the opportunity to discover the creative genius of an amazingly talented photographer who made the history of photography. There were many other Avedon photographs that I was unable to include in this article so if you are in Milan during the month of January, I hope you will get to see the exhibition because it was a fascinating and culturally enriching experience.

“Richard Avedon: Relationships” can be visited at Palazzo Reale in Milan until January 29, 2023.

Additional notes:

Thank you to the exhibition organizers for providing comprehensive explanations of the various sections devoted to Richard Avedon’s career and photographic works. It is one of the best detailed exhibitions I have witnessed in my life, and I am grateful to have had the opportunity to attend.

All pictures are my own.

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