This summer, Kunsthal Rotterdam presents a large-scale overview of the American photographer Richard Avedon (1923-2004). The exhibition, titled “Relationships,” illuminates Avedon’s groundbreaking contributions to both fashion photography and his characteristic portrait photography through over one hundred thirty photographs. His powerful, expressive portraits include figures such as writer Truman Capote, actress Marlene Dietrich, musician Bob Dylan, artist Andy Warhol, and actress and model Nastassja Kinski. “Relationships” celebrates Avedon’s innovative strength and creativity, demonstrating how the photographer uniquely captures the complexity and vulnerability of human relationships.

Richard Avedon is a pioneer in the fields of fashion and portrait photography. Throughout his career, he often photographed his models multiple times at different moments in their lives, revealing the developments in the character of the subjects and the relationship between photographer and subject. The Kunsthal presents the broad body of work of the master photographer, providing insight into his process and showcasing how Avedon’s distinctive portraits of world-renowned actors, dancers, artists, and literary figures continue to be influential in photography today.

Dynamics and Glamour
Richard Avedon began his career in 1944 at the leading magazines Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, revolutionizing the industry by photographing models in realistic and dynamic settings, unlike the static poses prevalent in fashion photography at the time. With his cinematic images, Avedon creates a narrative that transports the viewer into a world of glamour and entertainment. The photographer establishes unique relationships with his models. For instance, throughout his career, Avedon regularly photographed the American supermodel Dovima. Their close collaboration resulted in the groundbreaking fashion photograph “Dovima with Elephants” (1955) (seen on the left side of the page). Here, Avedon places the model in a Dior gown between two elephants, literally exposing the contrast between ‘the beauty and the beast’. The portrait of Nastassja Kinski (1981), commissioned by American Vogue, also becomes a global icon due to the timeless eroticism it exudes.

Intimate Connection
The portraits of the American poet and writer Allen Ginsberg illustrate Avedon’s ability to translate the subjects’ mutual bond into imagery like no other. While Ginsberg and his partner appear relaxed in the first intimate portrait in 1963, posing nude, Avedon flawlessly captures the discomfort that exists between Ginsberg and his family in the family portrait he creates years later. With the double portrait of the Italian writer and director Michelangelo Antonioni and his wife Enrica (1993), Avedon once again demonstrates his skill in capturing the relationship between two individuals in a portrait: the mutual dependence and unconditional support shine through in the pose, revealing the intimate bond between the couple.

Up Close
Characteristic of Avedon’s portrait photography is his positioning of his models against a characteristic white background, placing emphasis on the individual. Each work offers a unique opportunity to approach the subjects as only a partner or family member could. In the portrait of poet and philosopher Isaiah Berlin (1993), Avedon places the viewer so close to the subject that even the smallest wrinkles, lines, and eyebrow hairs are visible. In the portrait of Andy Warhol (1969), Avedon focuses on the artist’s upper body, displaying the almost tangible scars. All identifiable features of Warhol – such as his iconic silver wig – are omitted by the photographer, directing the focus entirely on the details of the torso.

Throughout his career, Avedon photographed various prominent political figures. Among them, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger (1976) stands before his lens, as do the Duke and Duchess of Windsor (1957). Noteworthy in Avedon’s approach are the unsettling remarks he makes during the process, manipulating and capturing the gaze of the subjects – often shocked or surprised. Commissioned by the prestigious magazine Rolling Stone, Avedon created an extensive series of photographs of American politicians in 1976. “Relationships” presents sixteen of these individual portraits, which also function as a group portrait, united by the shared ambition of the politicians to influence their country.

Avedon’s People
Avedon does not only place ‘the greats of the earth’ before his camera. With the same passion and attention, he photographed various workers from the American West for his series “The American West.” The endearing portrait of factory worker Mary Watts and her daughter from 1979, as well as the portraits of former enslaved William Casby and his family – part of the series “Nothing Personal” (1964) – showcase Avedon’s ability to expose the emotion of his subjects and demonstrate the photographer’s relentless desire to reveal every detail of the subjects.