- The Washington Times - Friday, October 8, 2004

Well-heeled ladies have forever prowled Manhattan’s Upper East Side for new ways to buy themselves beauty and status. Fifty years ago, they found a fashion photographer named Richard Avedon. Their sharp eyes noticed his tiny photo credit in Harper’s Bazaar, and they envied how gorgeous and elegant he could make a woman look.

For the chance to sit even briefly before his camera, they or their husbands would pay a princely sum — a year’s salary for some successful executives — but even so, he would not let them inspect all the pictures.

“I never let them choose,” Dick confided to me in his heyday, when I came to know him well as our paths crossed many times on assignment. “I only gave them the illusion of choice.”

In 1957, Hollywood sang his praises in the movie “Funny Face.” In hopes of approximating the legendary Avedon style and energy, the producers cast Fred Astaire.

While still in his 20s, Dick Avedon became the highest-paid photographer who ever lived. Before he died, on Oct. 1 at 81, he had reached the milestone of being paid $1 million — no assignments, no strings — by the editor of New Yorker magazine to do whatever he wanted for a year. His work for Madison Avenue provided far richer paydays.

The man who had attained these heights stood not even 5 feet 7 in his signature boots.

“My own self-image started off pretty low — a short high-school drop-out, a Russian Jew,” he recalled. “I used to walk around as Short Dumb Jewish Dick.”

The champagne and caviar and glamour associated with being the leading fashion photographer of his time weren’t enough for Dick Avedon. Stage two of his career involved living up to his heroes, photojournalists such as Robert Capa.

For that, he called the Department of Defense, sweet-talked the secretaries (who of course had noticed his work in their favorite magazines) of all the top generals and undersecretaries, and got permission to photograph their bosses. In a blink, he had wangled a credential to cover Vietnam as the war correspondent for Vogue magazine, a first, to say the least, for the bible of couture.

Although Dick had served in the Atlantic theater during World War II with the Merchant Marine, he had no desire for a baptism under fire in Vietnam. Quite unlike Mr. Capa, he had a healthy, if morbid, fear of land mines.

Instead, he focused on human nightmares, flesh turned shiny from burns. He made pictures of the monstrous, so disturbing that he would not allow them to be published and could not even stand to look at them himself for two more decades.

“Very early, I realized what a fine line separates beauty and its opposite,” he told me. “There can be enormous dignity in accepting the mirror, knowing one’s limits, and great melancholy inside of happiness.”

At about this same time, Dick began a project to photograph his father, who was dying from cancer, and there was an equal explosive energy in that. His father had been abandoned as a boy, left in an orphanage. As a consequence, he had become distant, cold and aloof — even toward his son.

Dick grew up sure that there could be no pleasing his father. He decided to write an autobiography out of the scraps of pain that he saw in this remote figure. In one picture, the photographer deliberately stepped into the camera’s frame, but even the pictures of his father alone were more like portraits of the artist as a young man.

At first, he tried to convince himself that it was an act of compassion, a way to reconcile their relationship before it was too late. The end result was unsparing, though, full of all the disappointment and anger that each had felt toward the other. By the time he turned the portraits into his first solo show at the Museum of Modern Art, exposing this most personal side of his life as 10-foot-high prints, nearly every visitor recognized how a camera could serve as a murderous weapon.

Within days of the show’s opening, in May 1974, a heart attack dropped the photographer to his knees, and he expected to die. He managed to continue his commercial work, but he withdrew from life and lived like a monk in three little rooms above his studio.

“I worked with very, very strong feelings,” Dick said of this time. “I photographed what I feared: aging, death and the despair of living.”

In the third and final stage of his career, he abandoned the bright lights for the wide, overcast skies of mid-America.

On a long drive out to Dick’s home on Long Island’s Montauk Point, he told me about his spiritual convalescence during a visit to a Montana ranch. He described the man who owned the place and hoped that he could one day record more of the grave stuff that the man was made of.

I told him a long story about my mom’s family in Oklahoma and some of my dad’s folks in Missouri and Texas, an emotional story about Midwestern grit, something I was sure was not so uncommon, something I had experienced myself.

Dick’s life had become so narrowly defined within a corridor of East Coast power that he was amazed to learn of other dramas just as potent or more potent than his own. He was inspired to spend most of the ‘80s traveling through 17 states; stopping in 189 towns; finding 752 ordinary, perfect souls to photograph. For the true peak of his career, he turned away from celebrity and beauty to find the people without a voice, to find out what he shared in common with them.

“I wish I’d never stopped photographing the people we met out West,” he said. “I wish I could have stayed with the project my whole life.”

There isn’t a picture he has taken that wasn’t ultimately a self-portrait. Yet all of the self-portraits he ever took left him dissatisfied.

“What I hope I get to photograph before I die,” he said in December, “is love and anger, simultaneously on one face.”

J. Ross Baughman is the director of photography at The Washington Times.

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