Friday, September 26, 2014

On Richard Avedon

Truman Capote (1924–1984)
From Art in America 1945–1970

In 1959 photographer Richard Avedon collaborated with Truman Capote (who, then thirty-five, was a year younger) on the groundbreaking book Observations, which gathered a selection of the photographs Avedon had created over the previous decade. Capote contributed brief profiles of Avedon’s subjects, including Charlie Chaplin, Pablo Picasso, Coco Chanel, Mae West, Louis Armstrong, Humphrey Bogart, Ezra Pound, W. Somerset Maugham, and Isak Dinesen. Copies of the book, even in subpar condition, are now hard to find and are valued highly by collectors. (You can page through the volume in a slide show posted at Vimeo.)

Avedon remained close friends with Capote until the latter’s death in 1984, and he captured the famous writer at various ages in a series of now-iconic portraits. For his part, Capote was always quick to defend his friend’s art and integrity. In 1964 Avedon collaborated with his former high-school classmate James Baldwin on a second photographic book,
Nothing Personal. Soon after its publication, theater critic Robert Brustein took to the pages of The New York Review of Books with a contemptuous dismissal, writing that the volume “pretends to be a ruthless indictment of contemporary America,” even though “no expense has been spared to induce an awe-inspiring effect” and “the moralistic authors of the work are themselves pretty fashionable, affluent, and chic.” In a letter to the editors, Capote retorted, “why does Brustein attack the book because it is a handsome piece of bookmaking?—would he rather it was printed on paper-toweling?” He then introduced Brustein to the economic realities of publishing high-quality books of photography:
But of Brustein’s many injustices, the most unjust is in his depicting Avedon as merely an “affluent” fashion-photographer whose main motivation in assembling this book was to exploit the American desire for self-denigration and, so to say, cash in. Balls. First of all, if the publisher of this book sold every copy, he would still lose money. Neither Baldwin nor Avedon will make twenty cents. Brustein is entitled to think that Avedon and Baldwin are misguided; but believe me he is quite mistaken when he suggests, as he repeatedly does, that they are a pair of emotional and financial opportunists.
Ten years ago this week, on October 1, 2004—the day after Truman Capote would have celebrated his eightieth birthday—Richard Avedon died at the age of eighty-one. In honor of his storied life and career, we present Capote’s introduction to Observations, with a short headnote by art critic Jed Perl, who included the piece in the new anthology Art in America 1945–1970.

Note: Capote mentions in passing various artists and celebrities, including Hungarian photographer Martin Munk√°csi (Muncaczi); American photographers Edward Steichen and Man Ray; Italian screenwriter Cesare Zavattini; Spanish flamenco dancer Vicente Escudero; Harper's Bazaar editor Marie Louise Bousquet; American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer; and Roman Catholic priest Martin D’Arcy S.J., the author of The Mind and the Heart of Love and a friend to a number of prominent British writers, including Evelyn Waugh and W. H. Auden.
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Richard Avedon is a man with gifted eyes. An adequate description; to add is sheer flourish. . . . If you don't see the full selection below, click here (PDF) or click here (Google Docs) to read it—free!

This selection is used by permission.
To photocopy and distribute it for classroom use, please contact the Copyright Clearance Center.