At the end of the 19th century, when fashion photography went mainstream, it became harder and harder to be a photographer and remain unseen, a fact that fed into the “art photographer” image and anti-fashion radicalism. This hit home for photographer Richard Avedon, who finally hit his stride with his 1974 book, “Women of New York.”
The book has become one of his signature statements on the state of photography, but Avedon never veered to elitist bohemianism for his images. Whether he was capturing the bohemian lives of Harry and Gladys Lee in Greenwich Village, or Suzy de Cadenet as a 20-year-old model in New York in the ’30s, he took images straight out of reality.
“I only try to capture a moment, a photograph, or in some cases a story, which is a picture I was at the time,” he once said.
The book “Women of New York” only took three years to complete, but it still feels pretty fresh decades later.
Avedon was unique in that he was never afraid to portray the street life of New York in a stark and honest way. The photographs he captured while on assignment to N.Y.C. in the ’60s for Vogue were as diverse as his images when he returned in 1970.
Once again, Avedon captured what many on the East Coast thought was a utopian life to modern-day New Yorkers.
“I may be out-of-touch because my idea of rural America is not your typical Southern farm folk or coal miner,” he once said. “I have one of them in my book, but my idea of the average American family lives on the edge of town. They are typical American families.”
Avedon was always into the greater good, and his 1930s photos of New York City went even further than his black-and-white photographs of women and children.
He was a believer in organic food movement, adopting this philosophy into the restaurant he opened in the Village called the Allegro.
Avedon never touched up his images, but to avoid any complaints in the ’80s and ’90s, he stuck out so much to the fashion magazines that the photos were retouched with “smoothers and suntans, better lighting,” the New York Times said in an article in 2000.
In a letter to The Times, Avedon said “I won’t worry about the fashion people who want to make themselves as pretty as I am making myself. I have no interest in that.”
In this part of the country, Avedon became more of a revered icon.
“Richard Avedon isn’t a local celebrity,” columnist Naomi Wolf said. “He’s a superstar tourist here. And you think every last one of these people who want to come to this region is an Avedon buff.
“So it’s probably time that Richard Avedon was no longer revered here,” Wolf added.
Avedon’s work still lives on, and in 1999, “Women of New York” was made into a documentary.
“You can’t get very far on a farm farm these days, but it was the opposite in the 1930s. There was this whole open landscape, and dirt and trees, and wide open, open prairies and forests — really no roads, no laws, and you could go anywhere,” Avedon said.