Richard Avedon 'Darkness and Light'

In my search to learn about famous portrait photographers I stumbled upon the documentary 'Darkness and Light', about the photographer Richard Avedon. I hadn't really looked at his work before, but knew that he's an icon in photography world. I always find it surprising to see images. that I have seen a couple of times and find out about the person who took it. 

I watched the movie two times. First, to really listen and watch without interruption, second to make notes. Beautiful things were being said. About how a person's life shapes it into an artist, the influence of others around and most of all, how to put yourself in your work, be convinced of who you are and what you're doing. In this blog I want to write down how this documentary has personally affected me, through quotes of the movie and my thoughts about it. 

Developing yourself and your style in and through photography

'To be a photographer you have to nurture the things most people discard'  

'Avedon is looking through the camera at other people, finding the truth about them in a way of a search for himself''

'Instead of it being a cooperation, Avedon says: ‘You’re mine, I’m here, I’m taking over, your surfaces I will make my own. That was an enormous leap for photography, because it said: yes photography is real, it’s true, but it’s also a work of art that can be malleable as clay'

'Photography is not reportage, it's not journalism, it’s fiction …. It’s my view. My idea of …. as a fiction'

'What were you thinking when you were doing this? I don’t know. Well you ‘d better know, it’s your photograph!'

'When you engage with wanting to get it right, it’s a non negotiable thing.'


I find that as a beginning artist I'm very dependent on what other people think about what is beauty, or the way things should be done and also about things that other people discard or aren't aware of. In a way there's nothing wrong with it. I learn so much from looking at other people's work, think about why they think the way they do, what they like etc. I do see the danger of getting stuck in it though. Especially with my work as a family photographer, I hang on to formulas that work, because I've seen others doing it and I know that that is sort of expected. The danger lies in not developing more from there. Be comfortable in where you are, because it's easy and because you don't want to take the effort to discover more about yourself and develop more. These quotes and the movie as a whole made me realise that I must follow my own path and stay actively open to everything that comes my way, engage in the parts of photography that non artists would discard, really finding myself valuable enough to take the time to find my own passion and style, whether others will like it or not. 

Avedon on the other hand shows that art and commercial work can go hand in hand. His commercial work is a break from his art he says and he talks about how the cooperation with other art directors etc, on fashion shoots were very inspiring. Still, when doing his own work, he knows exactly what he wants and how he can achieve that.

Knowing your style and how to achieve what you want 

'I work with a series of nos. No to distracting elements in the photographs, no to exquisite light, no to a certain subject matter, a certain people, not people I cannot express myself through, no to the props. All these nos force me into the yes. And I have no help. I have a white background, I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us.'

'Sometimes it’s necessary to trick to sitter into what you want. But never for the sake of the trick.'

'Avedon is looking through the camera at other people, finding the truth about them in a way of a search for himself.'

'The property of a work of art is that it should be disturbing, evasive. it disturbs to make you think, to make you feel. If my work didn’t disturb from time to time, it would be a failure to me. It’s meant to disturb in a positive way.'

'I think I’m some kind of a reader… ‚What happens to me is that in work, I look for something in the face and what I look for is contradiction, complexity. Things that are contradictory and at the same time connected.'

'Genuine interest in the people he’s seeking out, in the stories they have to tell and the life experience they have.'

'The strongest belief that Avedon’s portraiture represents is that the finally there’s nothing but the face. It’s through the landscape of the face….it’s really how we know each other. There’s nothing on earth more fascinating than the human face.'

Finding your own style and way of working is a process that hopefully will never stop. What I have learnt from this documentary is that even though I might know that I'm not there yet, it doesn't mean that I shouldn't have confidence in the the way I work and have the guts to work the way I'd like to. I am the one who makes the decisions. I am the one who is responsible for thinking about what the image will look like, what I need to learn to make it look like I want it to. I'm the one who's responsible for being perfectionistic enough and not give up if I know that I haven't reached my goals yet.

Avedon continued working and discovering himself till the day he died, through his own work and commercial assignments. That's an example I want to follow. Not be distracted, but focused and finding yourself and your work important enough to not let go and nurture the things other people or sometimes even myself would discard.

Quotes taken from:

'Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light [tv series, online]
Dir. Helen Whitney. American Masters Production,
WNET, USA, 1995. 1min 38secs. (accessed 09/01/2014).