RICHARD AVEDON – An Appreciation

In 1977 I was 23 years old, living in New York City. I was floundering a bit.. I knew I wanted to do photography, but as yet I wasn’t sure what it meant to be a photographer. Thus far I’d worked in an old-fashioned catalogue photography studio, and was presently working as a darkroom technician. My then mother-in-law, Nancy Walker, the comedienne, suggested that I go see Richard Avedon, and hear what he had to say. She had been photographed by him sometime in the 50s, and I suppose knew him well enough to ask this favour. Of course I was an admirer of his work, but he inhabited such stratospheric heights that it wouldn’t have occurred to me to contact him, let alone seek an opportunity to meet with him. Phone calls must have been made and I was duly summoned to his studio.

I think it was a very warm June around noon-time. I remember that I had barely slept the night before as I was so anxious; and when I rang the studio door-bell on East 60-something Street I suppose I thought that I would be ushered in by a junior member of an enormous staff, allowed to watch a photo session, and then be asked to leave quite quickly.

Instead the door opened, a not very tall man in large glasses, clad solely in shorts, a T shirt and barefoot, stuck out his right hand, shook mine, announced: “Hi, I’m Dick Avedon” and commanded me to come on in. In his left hand he held a large baguette (a hero sandwich to NYers), asked me if I’d had lunch yet, and when I humbly replied no, he tore the sandwich in two and handed me half. Needless to say I was overwhelmed, utterly gob-smacked, and I think this warm and spontaneous gesture made me feel even more timid. I followed him down a narrow corridor that led to a kitchen on the right, and straight ahead his studio. He sat me down at the kitchen table, poured me a glass of white wine, and interrogated me on my photographic experience to date. To me the most amazing part of this encounter, was that instead of a buzzing, hectic studio, with lots of people running around, we were completely alone, that I had the master entirely to myself. I meekly showed him my absolutely insubstantial portfolio, a hodge-podge of portraits and documentary-style black and white photos, in all honesty, quite poorly executed. He didn’t say much then, but proceeded to give me a tour through the most amazing studio – I think he’d ripped out two floors of his brownstone, which resulted in a triple-height space, of beautiful proportions, appropriate in my eyes to his Olympian status. He was in the middle of preparing for an exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum, and his assistants had built scale models of the rooms at the Met, where the show would hang. There were tiny little contact prints stuck to the walls of the model, and I remember thinking how lucky I was to see these unique postage-size Avedons.

We spoke a little more, and he gave me some excellent advice. He told me that I needed to further my technical education, and that he’d been a guest lecturer at The Art Center College of Design, in Los Angeles. He thought that I should attend this prestigious school, and he’d be happy to write them a letter recommending me. I have no way of knowing   whether this letter was ever written, but I applied and was admitted, and attended Art Center from 1978 until 1980. It turned out to be excellent advice, as the training there was extremely challenging, competitive and rigourous…just what an insecure, undisciplined photographer wannabe needed.

It was a life-changing meeting…and yet I was to meet him three more times. Twice in the next couple of years, once at an opening of a show of his at the G. Ray Hawkins Gallery in Los Angeles, and once at a film screening. Both times he was incredibly warm and friendly…and then once more, 15 years later, in 1995, when he gave a three hour talk at the Lyttleton Theatre here in London, where I’ve lived for the past 30 years. This encounter too was very special. During the interval Avedon strolled through the foyer, signing copies of his books and shaking people’s hands…I was sitting there with two picture editors who I worked for, one at The Independent on Sunday, and the other at Time Out, when his and my eyes met…a quizzical expression crossed his face, and he slowly made his way over to me. I rose from my seat, and he said, I know you from somewhere, but I can’t place you. The grin on my face practically cracked my head open, I felt so proud to be singled out in this manner…I briefly summarised the previous meetings, and he nodded, smiled,  shook my hand and moved on.