Tori Winn worked in Richard Avedonâ€™s studio in the 80s. This week Iâ€™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 Harperâ€™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 â€˜In the American Westâ€™. 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 Langeâ€™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 â€˜spottersâ€™ 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 Dickâ€™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 Dickâ€™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 mountingÂ an exhibition of his work at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.