The term "definitive version" is often bantered about. Fans of a singer hail his definitive version of a classic. Biographers and painters look to create definitive version of their subjects.
The expression is almost as overused as the term "national treasure."
Except, perhaps, in the case of Richard Avedon. As a photographer, Avedon was both: a national treasure who gave the world definitive versions of the infamous and influential.
Avedon passed away in Texas at age 81 last week. Within hours, critics and pundits were hard at work sizing up his contribution. For a photographer, leaving behind just one photo that becomes an icon is a feat. Avedon left dozens. And though the man's fashion photography changed the world of the runway, his personal portraits are what Americans will be seeing in magazines and on walls for decades to come.
Many associate Avedon with the fashion photos of Brook Shields in her Calvin Klein jeans and Natassja Kinski with her body-length python (the Kinski print sold 2 million copies), but his best work was always much more subtle and serene. In classic black and white shots of Rose Kennedy, Truman Capote, Marilyn Monroe and others, Avedon claimed he captured images of people, "running from happiness É locked within their reputations, ambitions and beliefs."
He was right. Avedon didn't take photographs of people, he recorded for posterity the most illusive and deeply human qualities that people hide from each other and even themselves. From peasant to president, Avedon's subjects appear vulnerable, exposed and — at times — desperate. Away from their worlds, they seem ill at ease.
Avedon could be prickly, edgy and impatient with people. Those close to him wrote such qualities off to his artistic temperament. He could also be extravagant and — in later years — a bit of a swashbuckler. Fred Astaire patterned his role as photographer "Dick Avery" in the film "Funny Face" on Avedon.
Like many other great American photographers, Avedon leveled notions of class distinction and stripped people down to their bare, unadorned, democratic selves. It was a gift of genius. And the art he created will be with us forever.