Body of evidence

The archetypal fashion photographer who revelled in controlled chaos. Jane Richards puzzles over the enigma that is Richard Avedon

two years ago, at the age of 68, the American photographer Richard Avedon got round to publishing his autobiography. Here, it was thought, would be the chance to glimpse an insight into the mind of the "Peter Pan" photographer (he looks half his age) whofamously eschews public appearances. No such luck. With a hefty £75 tome, Avedon was sticking firmly to what he does best: a life story told in photographs. It was a typically stylish move from the man credited with pioneering two of photography's most innovative and extreme styles - the stark, close-up portrait against a plain white backcloth and the elaborately staged, action-packed fashion shoot. But, for those who felt short-changed by his autobiography, more is revealed in Richard Avedon: Evidence 1944-1994, a new book of photographs with essays by American photography curator Jane Livingstone and Adam Gopnik, art critic of The New Yorker (where Avedon is the sole staff photographer). The launch of the book is accompanied by a National Portrait Gallery exhibition which claims to be a complete survey of Avedon's 50-year career. As Gopnik points out, it is a full half-century since Avedon began to publish photographs in magazines, starting with Harpers' Bazaar. In what has undoubtedly been a colourful career, he has published six books, including Observations in 1959 - photographs of celebrities; Nothing Personal in 1964 - images of America and the civil rights movement in the early Sixties; Portraits in 1976 - a collection of his severe, white back-drop portraits (mainly of metropolitan intellectuals); and In the American West(1985), setting ordinary workers against the familiar white backdrops. He has been involved in endless advertising campaigns for the likes of Calvin Klein and Christian Dior, visited war-torn Vietnam and was famously portrayed by Fred Astaire in the 1957 film Funny Face, as the archetypal fashion photographer. His imagery is a heady combination of reverence and irreverence. He idolised the world of fashion: when he arrived at Harpers' Bazaar in the early Forties - to work for the legendary fashion editor Diana Vreeeland and art director Alexey Brodovitch - he felt secure for the first time in his life (born in 1923 in New York of Russian immigrants, he had until then lacked confidence and direction). Yet he sent the industry he revered sky-high, from po-faced, drawing-room elegance to perfectly orchestrated chaos. He described how Henri Cartier-Bresson - his God - "permitted no cropping of the pictures, no manipulation" and then how "I went right in and cropped. I printed through gauze and tissue paper. I altered everything" - albeit with studious control. No incident, he has said, is ever accidental. Of the tantalisingly fleeting insights into Avedon's psychology, pinpointed by Adam Gopnik in Evidence, the most poignant is his infatuation with his sister. In an interview with the French magazine Egoiste in 1985, Avedon said, "Louise's beauty was the event of our family and the destruction of her life." She died at the age of 42 in a mental institution. Misgivings about the isolating nature of beauty have dominated his work; his favourite models - Suzy Parker, Dorian Leigh and Dovima - bear striking resemblances to his dead sister. In what is justifiably his most celebrated fashion image, Dovima and the Elephants (in which the model appears to restrain the massive beasts), Avedon brings together his favourite themes - beauty, power and illusion: the illusion of power and the impossibly heady thoughts planted in the minds of beautiful women by their admirers. Then there are the classic portraits. A host of celebrity portraits on the slab, as it were grotesque parodies of themselves - President Eisenhower, Dorothy Parker, Truman Capote, Marilyn Monroe and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. The big question is how he got so many public figures to lay themselves open to his ruthless scrutiny. Of a particularly gruelling photograph of Dorothy Parker, he said, "I was accused of being cruel and cold, of portraying Dorothy Parker as an alcoholic - which she was." Youcan't tell it more clearly than that.

Richard Avedon: Evidence 1944-1994, National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (071-306 0055) from 23 March to 11 June. `Evidence 1944-1994 Richard Avedon' - published by Jonathan Cape/NPG, cloth £50, paper £30

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