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What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon

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“Wise and ebullient.” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times The first definitive biography of Richard Avedon, a monumental photographer of the twentieth century, from award-winning photography critic Philip Gefter. In his acclaimed portraits, Richard Avedon captured the iconic figures of the twentieth century in his starkly bold, intimately minimal, and forensic visual style. “Wise and ebullient.” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times The first definitive biography of Richard Avedon, a monumental photographer of the twentieth century, from award-winning photography critic Philip Gefter. In his acclaimed portraits, Richard Avedon captured the iconic figures of the twentieth century in his starkly bold, intimately minimal, and forensic visual style. Concurrently, his work for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue transformed the ideals of women's fashion, femininity, and culture to become the defining look of an era. Yet despite his driving ambition to gain respect in the art world, during his lifetime he was condescendingly dismissed as a "celebrity photographer." What Becomes a Legend Most is the first definitive biography of this luminary—an intensely driven man who endured personal and professional prejudice, struggled with deep insecurities, and mounted an existential lifelong battle to be recognized as an artist. Philip Gefter builds on archival research and exclusive interviews with those closest to Avedon to chronicle his story, beginning with Avedon’s coming-of-age in New York between the world wars, when cultural prejudices forced him to make decisions that shaped the course of his life. Compounding his private battles, Avedon fought to be taken seriously in a medium that itself struggled to be respected within the art world. Gefter reveals how the 1950s and 1960s informed Avedon’s life and work as much as he informed the period. He counted as close friends a profoundly influential group of artists—Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Harold Brodkey, Renata Adler, Sidney Lumet, and Mike Nichols—who shaped the cultural life of the American twentieth century. It wasn't until Avedon's fashion work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1970s that he became a household name. Balancing glamour with the gravitas of an artist's genuine reach for worldly achievement—and not a little gossip—plus sixteen pages of photographs, What Becomes a Legend Most is an intimate window into Avedon's fascinating world. Dramatic, visionary, and remarkable, it pays tribute to Avedon's role in the history of photography and fashion—and his legacy as one of the most consequential artists of his time.


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“Wise and ebullient.” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times The first definitive biography of Richard Avedon, a monumental photographer of the twentieth century, from award-winning photography critic Philip Gefter. In his acclaimed portraits, Richard Avedon captured the iconic figures of the twentieth century in his starkly bold, intimately minimal, and forensic visual style. “Wise and ebullient.” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times The first definitive biography of Richard Avedon, a monumental photographer of the twentieth century, from award-winning photography critic Philip Gefter. In his acclaimed portraits, Richard Avedon captured the iconic figures of the twentieth century in his starkly bold, intimately minimal, and forensic visual style. Concurrently, his work for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue transformed the ideals of women's fashion, femininity, and culture to become the defining look of an era. Yet despite his driving ambition to gain respect in the art world, during his lifetime he was condescendingly dismissed as a "celebrity photographer." What Becomes a Legend Most is the first definitive biography of this luminary—an intensely driven man who endured personal and professional prejudice, struggled with deep insecurities, and mounted an existential lifelong battle to be recognized as an artist. Philip Gefter builds on archival research and exclusive interviews with those closest to Avedon to chronicle his story, beginning with Avedon’s coming-of-age in New York between the world wars, when cultural prejudices forced him to make decisions that shaped the course of his life. Compounding his private battles, Avedon fought to be taken seriously in a medium that itself struggled to be respected within the art world. Gefter reveals how the 1950s and 1960s informed Avedon’s life and work as much as he informed the period. He counted as close friends a profoundly influential group of artists—Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Harold Brodkey, Renata Adler, Sidney Lumet, and Mike Nichols—who shaped the cultural life of the American twentieth century. It wasn't until Avedon's fashion work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1970s that he became a household name. Balancing glamour with the gravitas of an artist's genuine reach for worldly achievement—and not a little gossip—plus sixteen pages of photographs, What Becomes a Legend Most is an intimate window into Avedon's fascinating world. Dramatic, visionary, and remarkable, it pays tribute to Avedon's role in the history of photography and fashion—and his legacy as one of the most consequential artists of his time.

30 review for What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon

  1. 5 out of 5

    Sean Desmond

    Incredible survey of a most prolific career. A thorough discourse exploring Avedon’s trapese-like balancing act as he juggled the indulgences of commerce with the immortal merrits of “art.” A family man, but who at the end of the day was most satisfied in his marriage to work. In the eye’s of his son, and of his partners was he truly “legend?”

  2. 5 out of 5

    Phillip Oliver

    An exhaustive and engrossing biography of Richard Avedon, one of the most iconic photographers of the last century. The book covers his life from childhood, growing up on Long Island under a stern and icy father figure, his fast-moving career in fashion photography, complex relationships with friends and family and the inner demons that haunted him. Avedon developed an interest in photography at the age of nine when he began to photograph his sister with a Brownie camera. Driven and focused, he An exhaustive and engrossing biography of Richard Avedon, one of the most iconic photographers of the last century. The book covers his life from childhood, growing up on Long Island under a stern and icy father figure, his fast-moving career in fashion photography, complex relationships with friends and family and the inner demons that haunted him. Avedon developed an interest in photography at the age of nine when he began to photograph his sister with a Brownie camera. Driven and focused, he was determined to work at Harper's Bazaar magazine and his dream materialized after an aggressive push to ingratiate himself into the company fold by getting acquainted with the art director Alexey Brodovitch who, in turn, introduced him to editor Carmel Snow. Under the tutelage of Brodovitch and Snow (whom he identified as parental figures) as well as "eccentric aunt" Diana Vreland, Avedon quickly moved up the ladder, first working at Junior Bazaar (an offshoot of Harper's) and eventually becoming the successor to George Hoyningen-Huene. Avedon's first magazine cover appeared in 1947 just as Dior was taking the fashion world by storm. The stories behind some of Avedon's most popular photos are all here, from how he achieved his most memorable fashion shots (like model Dovima posed alongside a pair of elephants) to his renowned portraits of celebrities like Marilyn Monroe, Marian Anderson, Rudolph Nureyev, Isac Dinesen, Andy Warhol and the Beatles. There are also wonderful stories and anecdotes about his relationships with the famous models he worked with, like Dorian Leigh, Suzy Parker, Twiggy, Lauren Hutton, Penelope Tree and China Malcado. He also cultivated friendships with Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote and Mike Nichols (which developed into an affair that lasted a decade). As successful as Avedon became, he was plagued by doubts about his work not being taken seriously and tirelessly worked to make the critics and the world look at his work as art. He also struggled with his homosexuality and was paranoid about people finding out (he would accompany his date to the theater but insisted that they sit several rows apart from each other). He was married twice, first to model and actress Doe Newell and later Evelyn Franklin (who was formerly married to photographer Milton Greene). Despite his friendly and caring nature, his relationships to his wife and children suffered, mainly because of his workaholic habits. Meticulously researched and excellently crafted, this is a wonderful read for anyone interested in celebrity, photography and the fashion world.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Esther

    I am a very big fan of Avedon's work. I consider him to be one of the best portrait photographers in history. I didn't know very much about him prior to this book. I studied his work in photography school and have gone to the Foundation office in NY. This biography highlighted every one of his pictures and all the different movements he went through. It was interesting to read about how he approached each of his different subjects. I mainly knew him from his fashion/celebrity portraiture so I w I am a very big fan of Avedon's work. I consider him to be one of the best portrait photographers in history. I didn't know very much about him prior to this book. I studied his work in photography school and have gone to the Foundation office in NY. This biography highlighted every one of his pictures and all the different movements he went through. It was interesting to read about how he approached each of his different subjects. I mainly knew him from his fashion/celebrity portraiture so I was pleasantly surprised to read he photographed the Vietnam War, people from government, and had a collection centering on the American West. Once this pandemic is over, I plan to go to the Fort Worth museum where it's housed and see them. It was also interesting to read about how he wasn't really seen as an artist until late in his life. I wish this book had more of his photographs for reference but I understand that for copyright purposes they couldn't include those. I also would have liked in the afterword some sort of discussion on how he is such a big influence on photographers today. But all in all a great biography!

  4. 4 out of 5

    Jack Perugini

    What a great, dishy read of a bygone time! The only thing that keeps me from giving this book five stars is the fact that practically none of the iconic photos described in great detail are included in the book! I often found myself Googling them for context.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Mam

    Fascinating story of the transformation of photography from documentation to art and one of the catalysts for the change.

  6. 4 out of 5

    SusanLongo

    Learned alot -very good writing style and well researched. The book is a bit too lengthy but excellent. I had to keep putting post-its then going to the internet for the photo - the stories behind the photos are really good but they would need about 100 more pages of photos in the book than they have to cover all he did. Fascinating stories of Mike Nichols, Warhol and others.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Joe Meyers

    Terrific new biography of the great photographer who lived and worked at the intersection of American commerce and art for many decades. Gives us a deeper and more objective look than the wonderful Norma Stevens memoir ‘Avedon: Something Personal’ - the books complement each other beautifully.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Raquel

    Covered this for the NY Post: https://nypost.com/2020/10/17/fashion... Covered this for the NY Post: https://nypost.com/2020/10/17/fashion...

  9. 5 out of 5

    Adrienne Grossman

    It wasn’t necessarily that enjoyable, but it made me think- and that’s valuable in these stagnant, COVID times.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Lou Mallory

  11. 4 out of 5

    Martha Birnbaum

  12. 5 out of 5

    Alyssa

  13. 4 out of 5

    Sarah

  14. 5 out of 5

    Mick

  15. 4 out of 5

    Donna dunn

  16. 5 out of 5

    Lynne

  17. 4 out of 5

    Philip Gefter

  18. 4 out of 5

    Melissa

  19. 5 out of 5

    Pamela

  20. 4 out of 5

    OTIS

  21. 5 out of 5

    Colleen Fitzmaurice

  22. 5 out of 5

    Brad

  23. 5 out of 5

    Viktor

  24. 5 out of 5

    Chris

  25. 4 out of 5

    Stephen Elliott

  26. 5 out of 5

    nhamzah01

  27. 5 out of 5

    Rsaunders1

  28. 5 out of 5

    Liza

  29. 4 out of 5

    Kohzy

  30. 4 out of 5

    Thea Traff

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