how france inspired richard avedon

As a new exhibition at the BNF looks to explore the links between Avedon and France, we celebrate the iconic, avant-garde American fashion photographer.

by Malou Briand Rautenberg
10 November 2016, 3:06pm

Jeanne Moreau, actrice, Paris, 26 juillet 1962, Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation 

For Richard Avedon, everything started with a fashion show in 1947, two years after the end of the Second World War; it was the New Look designed by Christian Dior. It was the first collection the French designer presented to the critics and press. A huge success, the show ushered in a new age in fashion after the austerity years of the war. So what does Richard Avedon have to do with it? Well Carmel Snow, the editor of the American edition of Harper's Bazaar, was sitting front row and having taken Richard under her protective wing, asked the young photographer to shoot the new mood suggested by the New Look; the images captured introduced movement, action, and modernity into the world of fashion photography. By taking Christian Dior's clothes out onto the streets of Paris and inside its bars, Avedon completed what Dior's show started. 

It kickstarted a lifelong relationship between photographer and city, and a new exhibition, just opened at the BNF, highlights the photographer's love and fascination with the romance and beauty Paris.

Harper's Bazaar, septembre 1960, pp. 194-5: François Truffaut, Alain Resnais, Alain Robbe-Grillet, Claude Chabrol. Photograph by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation 

The first room of the exhibition is dedicated to the portraits Avedon captured of the vieux monde; the writers Colette and Jean Cocteau; and leads onto his work capturing the emerging Nouvelle Vague, director François Truffaut, actresses like Catherine Deneuve, and Jeanne Moreau. Seen side by side, these gargantuan portraits (a life-size print of Yves Saint Laurent muse Loulou de La Falaise reigns over the room) not only reflect Avedon's allegiance to French culture, they also emphasize his singular taste for the arts, whether it's literature, cinema, or poetry.

François Truffaut et Jean-Pierre Léaud, réalisateur et acteur, Paris, 20 juin 1971, Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation 

More than the France d'Avedon, the exhibition celebrates the pioneering spirit of a photographer who defied photographic conventions and traditions, and created a whole new way of seeing and capturing feeling. It's easy to remember Avedon as a master of fashion photography — wasn't he one of the first to shoot fashion campaigns outside, in the real world when studios were de rigueur? (His iconic images for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue still pop up regularly on our Instagram feeds). But more than a place to be, the exhibitions shows France as the temple for all his artistic experimentations.

Yves Montand et Simone Signoret, acteurs, New York, 23 octobre 1959, photographie Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation 

Avedon was born and lived in an era where being a jack of all trades wasn't a thing or a necessity like it can be nowadays. Yet, he chose to embrace many characters and roles during his life. As an editor he discovered and promoted the work of French photographer Jacques-Henri Lartigue, publishing the first monograph of his work before most Frenchmen were aware of him. He was a visual consultant for the film Funny Face, directed by Stanley Donen, and an artistic collaborator of Egoïste magazine.

Catherine Deneuve, actrice, Los Angeles, 22 septembre 1968, Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation 

Three artistic statutes incarnated in three objects — a book, a film, and a magazine — that punctuate the viewer's journey and enhance our appreciation Avedon's refusal to play by the rules. The covers he shot for Egoïste magazine in its highly unusual format reveal the French extravagance of the time: luxury ads, Marguerite Duras' feather, and Avedon portraits of Soeur Emmanuelle, a young Gérard Depardieu, and Andy Warhol with a naked and scarified torso. His collaboration with Nicole Wisniak also displays a shared aim to draw fashion, pop, advertisements, and literature together in a kaleidoscopic display of chic, glitter, and market crash.



Text Malou Briand Rautenberg

Richard Avedon