Elizabeth Avedon – Book and Exhibition Designer

I was corresponding with Elizabeth Avedon after I posted several pages from Rolling Stone Magazine’s seminal political photo essay “The Family” shot by Richard Avedon, because as it turns out Elizabeth was working in the photographer’s studio at the time designing the cover of the book “Portraits.” She was telling me some fascinating stories about working with Richard Avedon along with revealing the fact that she designed that issue of RS and so I asked her a few question. The first obviously was if she’s related to Richard to which she replied that at one time she was married to his son.

APE: Tell me how you ended up working with Richard Avedon for 20 years?

pileofdummiesMarvin Isreal was Dick’s best friend and together they created Avedon’s Minneapolis exhibition, Nothing Personal book, and Marlborough exhibition. Marvin Israel was a Painter, Book Designer, Art Director of “The Bazaar” and Diane Arbus protege. He created, along with Doon Arbus, the first retrospective of Diane’s photographs at the Museum of Modern Art, as well as designed and edited her famous Aperture Monograph, now in it’s umpteenth printing.

I was his student at Parsons and he was always trying to convince me to leave school and just start working. Marvin was one of my favorite teachers and I began working as his assistant on several books. He would invariably have a falling out with who ever we were working for half way through and then I would end up completing the project. For example, while working with Peter Beard on “Kamante’s Tales,” Peter and Marvin had a falling out early into it. Marvin insisted Peter hire me to finish designing the book which is how I began my path as a book designer.

Marvin introduced me to Richard Avedon beaming I was “the best student he’d ever had.” Dick wanted me to start work for him that very day. We were on the same page right away when it came to his work. At that time Marvin and Dick (RA) were working on editing all of the fashion photographs RA had ever taken. They had special printers come over from Japan to work around the clock in the darkroom making contact sheets of the thousands and thousands of negatives for them to edit from. There were huge stacks of cartons filled with contact sheets all over Marvin’s studio. It was a several year project just to edit them so they would work on it on and off. During an off period, I was a magazine designer under the fabulous A.D. Bea Feitler (Bea was later Annie Leibovitz’s lover/partner).

During the period just after the Marlborough show, RA offered me a full time position to quit the magazine and work as designer/art director for him at the Studio. Some of my first projects were the cover for the Rolling Stone issue “The Family” and the book Portraits from the work that was in the Marlborough exhibit.

The work itself was phenomenally inspiring. The most elegant, beautiful images anyone could ever wish to work with and I thought it was my job to just make them look as great as they are, to not get in their way with a lot of strange type faces or layout ideas. It was my theory to keep everything simple so the work shined through, not my “design” showing off.

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APE: Tell me about designing the Fashion book cover?

RA wanted “Dovima and The Elephants” on the cover and didn’t like my idea of using his signature. While he was away for a month shooting the Paris Collections for Vogue, I designed many covers along the lines of what he’d asked for – including the one I was sure would be distinctive and beautiful.

APE: How did you convince Richard Avedon to not go with “Dovima and The Elephants” on the cover?

He knew it was the right choice immediately. All of us have an idea in our mind how we want something to look and can’t let go of it until we see something better. When he looked at the two covers side by side, there was no discussion. Marella Agnelli embodied everything his fashion photographs were about and the simplicity of his signature curved around the crook of her neck was extraordinary.

We never lost anything by putting “Dovima and the Elephants” on the back cover. It was fabulous that book stores displayed both front and back, side by side.

I also featured Dovima in each and every museum poster in Avedon’s retrospective exhibition I designed for The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. I redesigned the typography for all the additional museums it traveled to, including reshaping the space in each to accommodate the images I had divided into decades.

The lighting, framing, size of the prints and finally wall colors all changed and expanded – beginning with faintly lit, dark grey walls and the Paris photographs framed in small gold leaf frames. They were spot lit and as each decade unfolded the lighting would become brighter in each room as the frames slowly became more modern, until the last room of “Icons” – June Leaf, Renata Adler, Priscilla Rattazzi etc. were displayed as huge 9 foot prints mounted on canvas lit in blazing white light. Strong women – with an inner beauty that seemed to radiate out in these particular images.

APE: Do you think he appreciated the drive and instinct you had for the book design and exhibitions the same way that he used those qualities in his photography?

Can you imagine that Richard Avedon, who was at the top of his profession, would let someone whose opinion he didn’t completely trust and respect edit his work or design his exhibitions, books, catalogs, or collaborate on advertising campaigns?

APE: Do you have any anecdotes from working in his studio that you could share with young photographers?

He was driven to be who he became – it was not an accident. He practiced and demanded excellence everyday.

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APE: Tell me about working on “The American West” book?

Every last detail in the design down to the color selection of the hard cover linen cloth was meticulously considered and symbiotic to the work. I chose a color I associated with the desert landscape of the Four Corners area of the West. The typeface was influenced by an antique western frontispiece I found printed in the late 1890′s.

The images he made for this was a multiple year project and he rented a loft space just to work on it. After laying out all of the photographs on the floor, we spent months remixing them over and over until we finally edited them down to a manageable number. I then posted them up on a very long wall of cork board we had painted white. After mixing and remixing the wall images, they were reduced to almost the amount in the final book and inserted into acetate sleeves in a big black portfolio notebook. We would then go over whatever changes each would make day to day and re-sequence, just moving the acetate pages within the notebook until the images would seem to find their own home.

Collector’s want to buy the “book dummy”, but the dummy they want to buy never existed. They imagine a book of master prints perfectly bound, it wasn’t created that way.

Everyone asks that I explain my homage to Marvin Israel in the design credit as he died before I began working on the project. Marvin had traveled to Montana and then Texas with Dick while he was photographing for the book. Two diehard New Yorkers traveling around the American West together. It was a great moment for their friendship. Marvin died in Texas while on that trip. As my long time friend and mentor, I wanted to honor him in the book.

The book was a complement to the original exhibition I designed for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, specifically for this work. I had a model built to scale (one inch = one foot) and had the images made into 5 different sizes to scale and rework within the space. An additional space was created within to house the coal miners. It was a breath taking exhibition – the entrance to the Museum is entirely glass and you can see two floors at once lit up from outside the Museum. I placed 8 of the huge iconic images within their 8 large entranceways/doorways. It was a very glamorous entrance. I redesigned the spaces of the other eight Museums it traveled to over several years and recreated somewhat the original show for each of them. Only the Amon Carter had the full effect of his work being seen as it was originally intended.

APE: Where did you go from there?

I spent several years going through the archives and having prints made for many of the books that were published later. I moved on to co-publish, in conjunction with Random House, Elizabeth Avedon Editions/Vintage Contemporary Artists series, working with distinguished art critics such as Donald Kuspit and Peter Schjeldahl, and contemporary artists Francesco Clemente, Louise Bourgeois, Robert Rauschenberg, and many others. I was Art Director for Ralph Lauren’s National Advertising and a co-founder of Tibet House, NYC. Later, as Creative Director for The Gere Foundation, I initiated a wide range of photography exhibitions and projects to raise money for Richard Gere’s non-profit organization. I then worked for Ralph Lauren Media as photo editor for their online magazine (here). I recently returned to New York from New Mexico where I worked as Director of Photo-Eye Gallery in Santa Fe.

APE: What are you doing now and what kinds of projects you are looking to work on?

I’m happy to be back in NYC and designing. In early June I’ll be at Review Santa Fe and look forward to meeting all of the photographers there. I like working on projects that have multidisciplinary design possibilities in that I can play with two and three dimensional space. Books, exhibitions, ad-work – I always welcome the opportunity to work closely with photographers.

You can visit Elizabeth Avedon’s website (here) and see more photographs from Richard Avedon (here).

There Are 18 Comments On This Article.

  1. Darrell Eager

    Wow. Once again we learn that beautiful things don’t happen on their own.
    Thank you Elizabeth and Rob.

  2. A well crafted portrait of the person behind the portraits. Thanks Elizabeth for all that you have done. Past, present and future.

  3. Great seeing. I can’t tell you how much I have poured over these books and had no idea. I have been wishing of late that the book NOTHING PERSONAL could be republished; I wish I could send it to our President and I wish every person in America could read and see this book. We have two of the originals; The BIG hard copy and the floppy little one which I’ve procured from my father to reflect on here in Mexico as I would aspire to make something so simple so strong. Is there any hope it could ever be republished and available I think it has volumes to speak on the friendship of James Baldwin and Richard Advedon- I can’t help but wonder what they talked about in High School and what would they reflect on these current days.

  4. the story on your book design and especially the original exhibition design is amazing. i actually own a signed copy and got to see the actual exhibition at Madision, WI. it was breathtaking and monumental…. thanks for sharing the insight.

  5. Hi Elizabeth,

    Thanks for this excellent article. It appear that you are the architect of some of my favorite publications. I have a 1964 edition of Nothing Personal I have carted around the world for – ah more than 40 years, it has always been a seminal publication for me. I had a portrait session with James Baldwin in London in 1979 – we talked all the way through it.
    Oh this may not be going to you directly – in any case Salute Elizabeth Avedon.

    • @Juno Gemes, Thank you Juno, however NOTHING PERSONAL, which is perfectly designed and one of the most amazing photography books of all time, was designed by my friend and mentor Marvin Israel

  6. Thanks for following.

    How do you keep your professional relationship separate from your family relationship? Especially when you said you were once married to Richard’s son.

    • @ann chin, I worked for Richard Avedon for six years before getting married to his son, so we had already developed a strong working relationship. In regard to someone’s statement I was “once married to his son”, I wouldn’t characterize 16 years and two handsome, successful sons as “once”. It was a little longer than that!

  7. Very interesting article. I’ve become a new Elizabeth Avedon fan now, having recently seen the Richard Avedon exhibit here at the San Francisco MOMA. Incidentally, I was very close to Alan Atkinson before he died in 1993. I believe Elizabeth got remarried to Matthew, Alan’s son. Small world.

    • @David, That is a different Elizabeth Avedon-Elizabeth Cox Avedon-who was married to Keith Avedon, a cousin of Richard. She wrote a beautiful and moving book about him, “Thanksgiving: An AIDS Journal”.

  8. Elizabeth is clearly an amazing person, one of a kind, unique and inspirational. Behind every great artist there is an even greater curator as challenging to find as great inspirational artists but when they get together …….