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Avedon


 

Tori Winn worked in Richard Avedon’s studio in the 80s. This week I’m featuring an exclusive series of short essays about her experiences with him, his studio and his work.

WHAT MAKES DICK TICK?

Dick was driven and curious. He was not held back by any kind of convention. He loved working and loved people. He was almost obsessed with anything he was involved in. He had started his career in photography while he was in the army and, I think, it must have been during this time that he really started to use a camera to capture what was going on around him. After the war he came back to New York and started working in fashion. Not content to stay boxed in he let his energy and curiosity and fearlessness guide the way he worked. Dick had made a real name for himself by breaking boundaries and convention and liberating fashion. Working for Harper’s Bazaar and other publications, he took fashion models out of the studio and into the world where stories and visual portfolios came to life. These images allowed us to see and imagine things in new ways. These were street scenes and scenarios pulsing with life. Beautiful cultural freak shows of sorts that captured all levels of society through different prisms and experiences.

IN THE AMERICAN WEST

When I was at the studio Dick was preparing a personal body of work called ‘In the American West’. This was a project he had been working on and developed over five summers where he loaded up a truck with two of his assistants and he drove through the American West, documenting and capturing the life of drifters, grifters and other unknown people who are often overlooked or disregarded. These heartbreaking and searing portraits are reminiscent of Dorothea Lange’s work during the great depression but they are unmistakably Avedon and photographed in the 80s.

The show was being prepared for The Amon Carter Museum in Texas and he decided to print each of these black and white portraits at 30X their original size and to mount them on plates of brushed aluminum. They were huge and intimidating in many ways and these images surrounded us in the studio and the extended studio next door for over a year. In preparation for the show in Texas, Dick had assimilated a team of some of the best ‘spotters’ in the business. For about eight months a team of 12 artists worked on making sure that each portrait would be shown without technical imperfection. Dressed in white smocks and gloves and using only brushes, water and black ink, the spotters set to work with a daily focus on fixing any imperfections or details that may have gotten lost or crept in as the images were being made into large oversized prints. Living with these faces and the stories hidden within them was an indelible experience. They were testament to Dick’s personal work and continued exploration into capturing the human condition. They stood propped on easels and in a stark contrast to many of the fashion related commercial frivolities going on in the main studio.

AND SO IT GOES.

For many years I had a poster in my apartment that I loved. It showed Dick at work on this project. It was shot from behind and at quite a distance. We are in a wheat field. There is a barn gently weathered and slightly lopsided. It is midday. We see Dick and his two assistants and his subject, a drifter names Jose. A white seamless piece of paper is propped up against the barn as a backdrop. Dick is behind his box camera on tripod about 20 feet away from the barn. The second hand pick up truck is nearby in the field. It is a black and white picture and it beautifully captures the space and quiet of the moment and Dick at work in his makeshift studio somewhere in the middle of the American West.

I was lucky to land on Dick’s doorstep in my early twenties. I met great people and it was a culturally rich experience. The way he worked, his creative process, the environment he encouraged and the work he made inspired me. He opened up a world of opportunity in both how I wanted to see and experience the world. He died ten years after I left the studio at the age of 81 and shortly after mounting  an exhibition of his work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

 

Avedon

Tori Winn worked in Richard Avedon’s studio in the 80s. This week I’m featuring an exclusive series of short essays about her experiences with him, his studio and his work.

THE TRAVELING DIORS.

“I love his work but my favourite series of ads he created was for Christian Dior and these were featured in the New York Times Sunday magazine. He often worked with writer Doon Arbus, daughter of the late photographer Diane Arbus, and together they created the story of The Travelling Diors. Every week for about 9 weeks there was a double-page spread featuring another scene from the life of The Travelling Diors. I can’t find the images anywhere but they were great. There was movement and Avedon’s signature style of capturing his subjects cleanly against white seamless. This was a whimsical series of story portraits that were well written, styled and well propped. They featured two dashing young men a beautiful woman living a Noel Coward inspired lifestyle. This playful trio engaged in life as a ménage a trois where naughty was innocent and playful and provocative.”

EVERYDAY.

“During the morning and afternoons we all did our respective jobs but at lunchtime we would always come together in the kitchen and have a big family-style lunch. These were informal but fun. Sometimes we would order in (menus would make the rounds at 10:30 am) or someone might take control of the kitchen to cook up something home made that was shared with everyone. This midday collective pause allowed us to all slow down for a few minutes to appreciate what was going on, who Dick was shooting that day and a chance to always tell or listen to a few stories. I remember the day Brooke Shields was being photographed on her 18th birthday. She had a long-standing friendship with Dick and it was a particularly special day for me as we were close in age and I admired her. The atmosphere was relaxed and I remember that we all drank champagne and laughed and listened to crazy anecdotes of a life in the spotlight. Buckets of white roses were delivered and the phone kept ringing with calls from well wishers and friends. Her mother came by to pick her up and it was nice to be around someone who was so famous yet relaxed and open and at ease in this setting. I felt privileged to be there. The studio setting and atmosphere was a place where famous people felt like they could be themselves and I think it needed to be this way so that when they entered into the studio to be photographed by Dick, they would feel safe to lower their guard and be themselves, allowing Dick to capture a new side of them.”

I often feel that people come to me to be photographed as they would go to a doctor or a fortune teller–to find out how they are. So they’re dependent on me. I have to engage them. Otherwise there’s nothing to photograph. The concentration has to come from me and involve them. Sometimes the force of it grows so strong that sounds in the studio go unheard. Time stops. We share a brief, intense intimacy. But it’s unearned. It has no past…no future. And when the sitting is over—when the picture is done—there’s nothing left except the photograph…the photograph and a kind of embarrassment. They leave..and I don’t know them. I’ve hardly heard what they’ve said. If I meet them a week later in a room somewhere, I expect they won’t recognize me. Because I don’t feel I was really there. At least the part of me that was is now in the photograph. And the photographs have a reality for me that the people don’t. It’s through the photographs that I know them. 

“The cyclorama studio Dick used to shoot against was a very private and almost sacred space that had huge rolling doors that enabled him to block out the outside world. Inside the studio it was him and his assistants and his subject(s). Rarely was I ever on set during shoots but occasionally I would peak in and I know he created a very quiet and calm blank space that allowed him to focus on being with his subject and having an unspoken dialogue. This was how he could capture something unknown, unknowable and magic and that was his gift and talent.”

Avedon

Tori Winn worked in Richard Avedon’s studio in the 80s. This week I’m featuring an exclusive series of short essays about her experiences with him, his studio and his work.

EAST 76th STREET.

I got the job and I spent the next two years of my life working from within this marvelous townhouse studio on East 76th Street. It was like being part of a creative circus with a great family of people surrounding me. We all worked hard and were a troupe made up of photo assistants, studio assistants, art assistants, researchers, curators and specialists brought in to support whatever extracurricular projects and activities were going on. There were about 16 of us full-time. I was the youngest and my days were quite varied and would range from helping to manage and publish his poster collections to working with researchers and curators on art projects or helping his core team of 6 photo assistants. All of us contributed to making every day within the studio as great as it possibly could be. I often got to work in the archives–organising contact sheets and prints and looking through a world of images. Often on my own I would spend hours at the light box looking at film and moments often singled out with the mark of a red wax pencil. These visual riches made a huge impression on me and have fed my love and appreciation for how powerful a captured moment can be. And how poignant it is to be human. At Avedon’s I felt safe and I was given the freedom and encouragement to get involved in all kinds of projects. It was wonderful and with it came new opportunities to learn and grow all the time. I got paid barely anything but I was well fed and every day was new.

DICK AVEDON. 2.

Dick had vigorous energy and a passion for blending art with commerce in much of what he did. Every day was different with someone new coming in to be photographed and the studio was always busy. We were continually shape shifting to accommodate the different specialty acts that would walk through the doors to be photographed on a daily basis. Dick loved to tell stories and he often would come up with ideas that forced him to explore new ways of looking through the lens so he could capture and experience something magic and unexpected. A surprise. He photographed everything and almost everyone—he did editorial fashion work, advertising projects, portraits of cultural icons and people, and people with product. His ads for Calvin Klein fragrance were iconic mini movies that captured man’s obsession with woman. He did art and commerce and he worked mostly in the studio and sometimes on location. He surrounded himself with a tight team who were organized and disciplined and helped it all run smoothly so he could focus on the work.

Avedon

Tori Winn worked in Richard Avedon’s studio in the 80s. This week I’m featuring an exclusive series of short essays about her experiences with him, his studio and his work.

DICK AVEDON. 1.

“As a person Dick Avedon, like Norma Stevens, was almost always moving quickly except when on set or sitting down at lunch or after 6pm when he disappeared upstairs into the space he lived in above the studio. He was a spirited Jewish New Yorker from the Bronx who had made something of himself through chutzpah, fearlessness and determination. He was 69 when I started working at the studio so by the time I knew him he was a man who had accomplished a lot but he was still pushing ahead and exploring new things with his camera. His restlessness and work ethic coupled with curiosity kept him young, driven and fresh. He often wore dark corduroys or jeans with a button down shirt, cashmere V-neck and moccasins or driving shoes. He had great silver grey hair and he was slim and attractive and maybe gay or asexual but it was impossible to tell. He had been married, had a son named John and some grandchildren. He was cultured and very social with a surround of famous friends from all walks of life. He also had a terrible time remembering names. Dick was protective and he cared about the people he surrounded himself with; he was known for being generous to his friends and he respected those who worked as part of the studio and Richard Avedon Inc. This combination and blend of things gave the studio a unique and vibrant daily rhythm and atmosphere and I loved being a part if it.”

UPSTAIRS DOWNSTAIRS

“Dick lived just above the main studio space in a great duplex. It was open-plan and unique for that part of NYC. It was sunny and airy and spacious and I thought it was cool and eccentric; he had a canvas-coloured teepee in his kitchen. There were a few times when I had to go upstairs and I felt quite tentative and a little scared to walk into the private space of a man who was so publicly famous for capturing and exposing the pathos and intimacies of others. I think Dick was fundamentally a very private person himself but when he was working something happened where he would expose a part of himself to his subjects and vice versa and together—somehow—they would capture a magic unknowable moment. These were the portraits he has become so famous for. I think he was a man who appreciated contrasts and complexities and borders and nuance. He was empathetic when he worked. He had learned how to move between worlds and spaces effortlessly and to create situations where he could always protect or reveal different sides of himself. The calm of his home stood in stark contrast to the vibrant daily hustle and bustle that was going on downstairs in the studio. But these two spaces did co-exist quite harmoniously and Dick seemed to move seamlessly between them in his role as photographer, celebrity, artist and ordinary man. Most evenings at 6pm the studio closed and I imagine a blanket of stillness and calm swept through this residential building that was located at 602 E. 76th Street. It is now a nursing home. “

Avedon

Tori Winn worked in Richard Avedon’s studio in the 80s. This week I’m featuring an exclusive series of short essays about her experiences with him, his studio and his work.

I LOVE PHOTOGRAPHY.

“I’ve always been quite lucky. In my early twenties I lived in NYC and needed a job. I was 21 and bored working in a quasi-aimless position a clothing shop on Madison Avenue. I bumped into a college acquaintance that serendipitously told me about an opening at Richard Avedon’s studio. They knew someone who worked there as part of ‘Dick’s’ studio team and they were interviewing for a junior assistant who could help support them across all kinds of activities. I knew who Avedon was and I was excited by the idea of being in a creative environment that would get me closer to people and things I admired and was fascinated with. I associated him with fashion, photography, celebrity and glamour. In order to get the job I had to get through an interview with Norma Stevens, Dick’s business manager. She was intimidating and, in retrospect, a cliché—the quintessential New York business woman; Jewish, 5’3” in heels, dressed top to tail in black with the occasional flash of colour as experienced whenever she would rush in and out of the studio on her way to appointments wearing her yellow rain slicker. Norma was nice but she was never not moving or talking. She personified the term ‘mover and shaker’ and was married not only to a successful ad exec but to Dick as well. She was involved in every detail of his business affairs and anything having to do with making money and protecting Dick’s work. Norma Stevens was the gatekeeper to Richard Avedon Inc. In looking back I think Dick would have needed a lot of money to run a studio of about 16 people full time in the way that he did.”

Avedon

In 2009, I spent a few foggy days in San Francisco where I saw a Richard Avedon exhibition at SFMOMA. It was amazing. His portraits of the American west left me speechless. So, as you can imagine, I was utterly astounded when, upon my return to work, I was gushing about it to my creative director and she revealed to me she’d worked for Avedon. She’d WORKED FOR AVEDON.

So this week, I’m bringing you a very special series of short essays. They’re written by Tori, exclusively for this blog, and they’re all about what it was like working with the forefather of modern fashion photography, a true master of his craft.