10 Lessons On Photography & Art From Richard Avedon And James Baldwin

My portraits are more about me than they are about the people I photograph. Richard Avedon

Hello everyone,

I hope life is good. We are settling into the lovely town of Chefchaouen in the Rif mountains of Morocco. We’ll be here for a few weeks as we love it so much. The colours, the light, the pretty town and the mountain views.

It’s easy to work here and I am doing a lot of great photography. We are all basking in the peace and calm of such a magnificent place.

Today I’ve been reading about the book – Nothing Personal – which I hadn’t heard of before. It is a collaboration between photographer Richard Avedon and writer James Baldwin. These are two men I really admire and whose work I delight in. I had no idea they collaborated in the 1960’s on a project about America.

Great self portrait by Avedon. A man of confidence!  © Richard Avedon

Nothing Personal is being exhibited in New York and the book was just republished by Taschen. (Here is a blogger showcasing the previous edition on Youtube. Highly recommend it, it shows you the progression of the book – fascinating.)

Avedon was an amazing photographer, known for his fashion and portrait work. Baldwin wrote one of my favourite novels, Go Tell It on the Mountain, but was also an essayist, and political activist.

(I like to remind myself of these wise words of Baldwin when I think about my kids: “Children have never been very good at listening to their elders, but they have never failed to imitate them.” James Baldwin)

James Baldwin © Richard Avedon

It turns out Baldwin and Avedon went to school together in the 1930’s and worked together on the school’s literary magazine, The Magpie:

“Even as teenagers, they, in their writing, dealt with profound issues of race, mortality, and, as Avedon wrote, ‘the future of humanity’ as World War II closed in on them.”

So besides alerting you to this interesting book, I thought this would be a good time to give you some tips and ideas of what we can learn from Richard Avedon.

  1. There will always be people who hate your photos

Avedon was an elitist snob who deliberately set me up…The portrait is foolish, stupid, insulting. It makes me look like a complete idiot. Karl Rove. Photo © Richard Avedon

How many photos that I take of my wife does she actually like? Possibly only 1%, I am sorry to say. I can love a photo of her, and she hates it. But this is just par for the course of photography.

People will always have sensitivity about their own image. Let’s face it, we all have a vision in our head of how we’d like to look, and when photos don’t match up to that vision then we dislike them. Nothing us photographers can do about that! Except really, to not take it personally.

Do the best that you can, and accept that if you photograph people you’ll find a lot of them disliking the resulting photo.

Photo  © Richard Avedon

From an interview:

Jeffrey Brown: Not everyone is always happy with the results. Avedon took this portrait of the renowned literary critic Harold Bloom.

Richard Avedon: And he said, “I hate that picture. It doesn’t look like me.” Well, for a very smart man to think that a picture is supposed to look like him… would you go to Modigliani and say, “I want it to look like me?”

You have to remember when you look at his photographs that Avedon will have had time with his subjects, will have shot many different photos – and most importantly chosen each image  on purpose – to match his vision.

There will always be a range of expressions and poses, and part of the genius of photography is the edit, is the photos you actually choose.

There were probably plenty of images from this series of shots of these families posing and trying to put their best ‘image’ forward. Perhaps it was just time or boredom which got them to drop their facades.  Photo © Richard Avedon

2. People will try to be seen in a certain way

Jacob Israel Avedon,  © Richard Avedon

Avedon took some stunning photographs of his father, which he wrote about beautifully. He said:

His [Avedon’s father] allegiance was to the way he wanted to be seen; mine was to the way I saw him, which had to do not only with my feelings about my father, but with my feelings about what it is to be anyone. Richard Avedon in ASX

3. Photography is not the truth – it’s an interpretation

A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is truth. Richard Avedon

Photographers are opinion-makers, they are forming people’s interpretation of the people around them.

This is a beautiful portrait. But it is also not totally the truth, it’s a moment, captured.  The skill in photography is recognising that, and also wondering, what would come next on your subject’s face? Photo © Richard Avedon

4. To be an artist— to be a photographer, you need to nurture the thing that most people discard….
….You have to keep them alive in order to tap them. It’s been important my entire life not to let go of anything which most people would throw in the ashcan. I need to be in touch with my fragility, the man in me, the woman in me. The child in me. The grandfather in me. All these things, they need to be kept alive. 
Richard Avedon

Photo  © Richard Avedon

I like this quote so much. It is showing us that nothing in life is irrelevant to our craft. Watching the metal glisten on the train tracks as we wait for our morning train. Studying the face of a client at a meeting. Watching the shapes on the window in the dark of night as we lay with our child because they had a bad dream.

All of life informs our choices as photographers. You are never not taking in visual information! You can use the time when you are doing other things, to notice, to see, to feel, to absorb, to spark ideas.

Rudolf Nureyev  © Richard Avedon

For me this is also about learning to live in a different way to others. Not gliding through life, to sometimes find the inane – fascinating; the boring  -stimulating; the useless – useful. It’s those contradictions.

Sometimes I feel like I am going the opposite way to people in my life. Instead of building more security I am building less, instead of acquiring more things, I am discarding everything I don’t need.

And because “When one begins to live by habit and by quotation, one has begun to stop living.” James Baldwin

Plus when you think of doing something different or difficult, it’s useful to remember that:

Those who say it can’t be done are usually interrupted by others doing it.” James Baldwin

Barbra Streisand  © Richard Avedon

I love the angular nature of so many of Avedon’s portraits. He uses the body in such an interesting way. Slightly reminds me of Bill Brandt, who had a very different style but he also made interesting shapes with the body.

5.  I hate cameras. They interfere, they’re always in the way. I wish I could just work with my eyes alone. Richard Avedon

I love this. This is going beyond the camera and its many facets. It’s going beyond the tools and being someone with a vision and passion for examining life.


6. My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They’re readings of the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues. Richard Avedon

This makes me laugh! Because it’s true and also not true. So much is revealed in people’s faces, in a moment, so much is being communicated. And yet it is just a moment. It is just a fleeting moment that has been subjectively captured by a biased individual.

Photo  © Richard Avedon

7. Don’t become obsessed with your subject

Whenever I become absorbed in the beauty of a face, in the excellence of a single feature, I feel I’ve lost what’s really there…been seduced by someone else’s standard of beauty or by the sitter’s own idea of the best in him. That’s not usually the best. So each sitting becomes a contest. Richard Avedon

When you become so involved in how interesting your subject is, you aren’t looking at them objectively, but almost as an element in your scene.

Very hard light on John Lennon here. But the effect is amazing. Photo © Richard Avedon

8. Work on connecting with your subject

Snapshots that have been taken of me working show something I was not aware of at all, that over and over again I’m holding my own body or my own hands exactly like the person I’m photographing. I never knew I did that, and obviously what I’m doing is trying to feel, actually physically feel, the way he or she feels at the moment I’m photographing them in order to deepen the sense of connection. Richard Avedon

Interesting quote. It shows us how important connecting to your subject is – and it’s not just about getting along with them. It’s about observing and connecting with their mood and energy, how they are feeling.

This is about observering and trying to allow the subject space, so they can unfold themselves.

In contrast, a very subtle light on Audrey Hepburn here. I love this portrait. Look at the connection she has with the camera and the photographer.  Photo © Richard Avedon

I think I’m sort of a reader— I used to love handwriting analysis. But that’s nothing compared to reading a face. I think if I had decided to go into the fortune telling business, I would have probably been very good. What happens to me in work— I look for something in a face, and I look for contradiction, complexity. Somethings that are contradictory and yet connected. Richard Avedon

9. Fear is there, regardless of how accomplished you are

There’s nothing hard about photography. I get scared, and I’m longing for the fear to come back. I feel the fear when I have the camera in hand. I’m scared like when an athlete is scared, you’re going for the high jump. You can blow it. That’s what taking a photo is. Richard Avedon

I talk about fear a lot. I will continue. This is a reminder to me that it doesn’t matter how much you’ve done in your life, fear can always be there. And that’s OK.

Photo  © Richard Avedon

10. Fear can also be useful

I think I do photograph what I’m afraid of. Things I couldn’t deal with … My father’s death, madness, when I was young—women. I didn’t understand. It gave me a sort of control over the situation which was legitimate, because good work was being done. And by photographing what I was afraid of, or what I was interested in— I laid the ghost. It got out of my system and onto the page.Richard Avedon

I thought this was quite a curious portrait for Avedon (of Malcom X) His photos are usually pin sharp, but I like the movement in this photo, © Richard Avedon

I’d like to finish with a short extract from an essay by James Baldwinwhich is think is really enlightening, about the role of the creative act in the day-to-day of life:

“Perhaps the primary distinction of the artist is that he must actively cultivate that state which most men, necessarily, must avoid; the state of being alone.

That all men are, when the chips are down, alone, is a banality — the banality because it is very frequently stated, but very rarely, on the evidence, believed.

Most of us are not compelled to linger with the knowledge of our aloneness, for it is a knowledge that can paralyze all action in this world.

There are, forever, swamps to be drained, cities to be created, mines to be exploited, children to be fed. None of these things can be done alone.

But the conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself.

The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.”

From The Creative Process by James Baldwin

Marilyn Monroe  © Richard Avedon

Now a few further resources:

I hope those have been some useful and relevant ideas for you. I’d love to know what you think – please comment on our blog.

I’d like to leave you with another quote from Avedon, which is a beautiful idea:

“If you do work everyday at your life, you get better at it. The trick is: to keep it alive. To keep it crucial.”

Happy photographing,

Anthony and Diana