Richard Avedon, a photographer who wanted to outrun the glitz factor

By Dwight Garner

The drama of the approaching photo insert nags at the reader of biographies. Do you skip ahead and devour the eye candy? Or do you hold off, slogging toward the photographs as if they were a small, warm inn at the midpoint of a long, pebbly hike?

The issue is pressing while reading “What Becomes a Legend Most,” Philip Gefter’s wise and ebullient new biography of Richard Avedon. Gefter takes the reader inside so many of Avedon’s photo shoots, and so deftly explicates his work, that you’re thirsty to sate your eyes with Avedon’s actual images.

They aren’t in this book. The two photo inserts contain, surely because of rights issues, pictures of … Richard Avedon. He was eye candy, too. He did most of his bold, minimal, revolutionary fashion work for Harper’s Bazaar, and its longtime editor Carmel Snow. Ginette Spanier, director of the House of Balmain in Paris, first met Avedon in 1948. She accurately described him in her autobiography as “small, dark and electric with his own sort of vitality. Crackling. Sparks seem to fly out of him. He flashes his fingers like tiny rapid moths.”

Since I’m already complaining about a book I admire, allow me to get one more thing out of the way. The drama of Avedon’s career lay in his effort to escape the taint of being seen as merely a fashion and a commercial photographer. A certain glitz factor followed him wherever he went. His wealth, his flowing hair, his eager showmanship; he was his own klieg light. Though he was personally close to Diane Arbus — among the first people to arrive at her apartment after her suicide — most of the downtown photography elite, including Robert Frank, never trusted him.

One of the achievements of Gefter’s biography is to argue persuasively for Avedon’s place, as a maker of portraits, as one of the 20th century’s most consequential artists. To dismiss him as a celebrity photographer, this book suggests, is “an intellectual slur.” Gefter further situates Avedon on a continuum that includes photographers like Nadar, Julia Margaret Cameron and August Sander.

Given all this, it’s baffling that Gefter would use as his book’s title the tag line from a series of mink coat ads that Avedon shot for Blackglama in the late 1960s. “What Becomes a Legend Most,” as a title, spritzes cheap cologne on Gefter’s own thesis.

Avedon’s career was long. His first fashion photograph appeared in Harper’s Bazaar in 1944, when he was 21, and he was still shooting for The New Yorker at the time of his death 60 years later. He knew everyone and photographed everyone, and part of the pleasure of this biography lies in watching life’s rich pageant pass by.

Avedon went to Kansas with Truman Capote to take images of the killers Capote wrote about in “In Cold Blood.” He was in the room the night Leonard Bernstein gave the party Tom Wolfe wrote about in “Radical Chic: That Party at Lenny’s.” Bernstein, Sidney Lumet, Harold Brodkey and Mike Nichols were among Avedon’s closest friends.

Avedon, who married twice, was a closeted gay man. A previous biographer, Norma Stevens, one of Avedon’s business partners, alleged that Avedon and Nichols had a long clandestine romance. Gefter holds this assertion somewhat at arm’s length.

Gefter selects the right photo sessions to linger over. These include Avedon’s time with Marilyn Monroe; Charlie Chaplin; the Chicago Seven; James Baldwin; Rudolf Nureyev (who posed nude); the Beatles; Andy Warhol’s Factory crew; Jorge Luis Borges; and Nastassja Kinski, whom Avedon also photographed nude, lying with a boa constrictor curving along her own curves and flicking its tongue at her ear in an image plastered on a million dorm room walls.

Gefter’s prose is unshowy but supple. “Avedon’s signature was the formality of a straight-on figure against the white nuclear backdrop,” he writes, “with a proscenium frame composed of the edges of the film printed as part of the image — the ID picture taken to its apotheosis.”

Avedon was born on the Upper West Side of Manhattan in 1923. His parents were the children of recent Jewish immigrants. His father ran a sophisticated clothing store on Fifth Avenue before shutting it and filing for bankruptcy soon after the 1929 stock market crash. His mother introduced Avedon and his younger sister, Louise, to as much culture as they could handle, sometimes finding ways to sneak into performances without tickets.

Avedon was picked on as a kid. He was Jewish, effeminate and an aesthete; he disliked sports and was told he threw like a girl. At DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx, he found a close friend in Baldwin; together they edited the school’s literary magazine. During his senior year, Avedon’s father paid for him to have a nose job.

Avedon was a poor student, and joined the merchant marine in 1942 in part to avoid telling his parents that he would have to repeat senior year. He had an easy war, working stateside as a photographer’s assistant. He never attended college and nursed an inferiority complex over that fact.

Avedon enjoyed his rapid embourgeoisement. “Richard Avedon taught me how to be a rich person,” Nichols commented. The photographer’s houses and apartments were baronial. If he saw a play in Stockholm he loved, he’d fly over four additional times to see it, bringing friends on each occasion. He had big, varied, elegant buffet lunches at his studio every day; friends dropped in to meet whomever he was shooting. He could get a table at the last minute in any restaurant, the best seats to any opera. His friend Adam Gopnik wrote of him: “He smelled faintly, richly, of limes.”

Gefter, whose previous books include “Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe” and who was an editor at The New York Times for 15 years (The Times is a big place and I’ve never met him), details the long-running antagonism between Avedon and John Szarkowski, the king-making director of photography at the Museum of Modern Art. Critics were hot and cold on the lavishly staged shows of Avedon’s work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Marlborough gallery and elsewhere, and he took criticism hard.

When a negative review of his 1974 show “Jacob Israel Avedon,” a series of portraits of his aging father, appeared in this newspaper’s Arts & Leisure section, Avedon was in the hospital with pericarditis, an inflammation near the heart. He tried to take the review calmly.

He could not. Distraught, he eventually rose from his bed and took a lighted match to the corner of the offending section. The fire grew out of control. He wrestled the mess into the toilet, where it continued to fizzle.

A journalist for Playboy, writing a profile, captured the rest of the scene: “There he knelt, world-famous glamorous person Richard Avedon, flushing the toilet again and again, forcing down the soggy glob of paper until he was elbow deep in intimate plumbing. Finally, with a gurgle, the cremated remains started off to sea.”

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