Richard Avedon first gained fame for the revolutionary, compelling fashion photos that he shot for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue during the 1940s, but he always knew that fashion was not his only calling. The magazine commissions paid the bills and allowed him to pursue the portrait photography that he found truly fulfilling. From the 1940s onward, Avedon has trained his lens on a broad spectrum of humanity, from the famous to the anonymous and from the elite to the outcast, demonstrating the portrait’s ability to capture a person’s essence in ways that other forms cannot.
Two years ago, when Avedon donated a collection of portraits to New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, he had hoped the pictures would eventually form the basis of a small exhibition. Instead, they became the core of a Met retrospective of his portraiture. Richard Avedon: Portraits, which opens on September 26 and runs through January 5, 2003, features approximately 180 works that span the 79-year-old’s career.
The rest of the world has long since acknowledged Avedon’s mastery of the portrait photograph, and his days of planning portrait sittings around fashion shoots are long in the past. Still, that does not diminish the thrill Avedon feels in seeing this retrospective open at the Met, as he reveals in this Q&A session about his life’s work.
What does it mean to you to see your portraits displayed in the metropolitan museum of art?
I grew up across the street from the Met and did my homework there long before people went to museums. The idea that my portraits have ended up there is amazing. I had an exhibition of my fashion work at the Met 25 years ago, but I never thought it would happen again.
What do you feel has been your major contribution to photography? what has your role been?
One of the things that Ir-ving Penn and I did for photography was insist that we not be ghettoized, that we not be put in the photography department in the basement—where it used to be in the Museum of Modern Art—or in a hall. Our work was either going to be shown in a museum, equal to prints, sculpture, and paintings, or not at all. And we were very firm about that.
What influences have shaped your approach to photography?
I’ve never been influenced by other photographers in the way that there are schools of Walker Evans. I learned more from reading about other people and translated it into my language. My life was influenced by [Chaim] Soutine, [Alberto] Giacometti, and Man Ray. I was only interested in the person [I was photographing] and not in an idea about art. I never thought my photographs were art. It’s all about the people in the room.
What is the fundamental distinction that separates your early fashion work and your portraits?
I enjoyed all of it, but the deeper part of me went into the portrait. Even if the fashion was groundbreaking at the time, it was an enthusiasm that wore itself out. Portraiture never has.
Did anyone ever turn you down for a sitting?
Sean O’Casey [the Irish playwright] sent a charming letter about how he was too old. And, obviously, Greta Garbo. But that’s like a joke, that Garbo said no.