Old Documentary on Richard Avedon Reveals Methods of a Master

Browsing YouTube can be an exercise in either frustration or bliss, depending on the day. Today, though, I happened upon something that truly speaks to me. If you are a portrait photographer, or anything resembling one, you owe it to yourself to check out the documentary, "Darkness and Light," a part of the American Masters Series, produced by PBS.

In this film, released in 1996, Richard Avedon is laid bare, from his humble beginnings to his dominance and decline in the fashion and portrait spotlight. Even more interesting to me, though, is his complete mastery of the shooting space. The dominance that he maintained over his subjects while remaining amicable and not completely alienating those he worked with was a skill that few can attain. By directing his subjects in creative ways, he's able to pull reactions, expressions, and movements from them that would be unattainable by most of us. Of course, sometimes those reactions and expressions were not favorable in the eyes of the subjects themselves. Did Avedon's manipulation of the subject bring out honesty or was the photo contrived by him for effect? I don't know the answer, but the portraits are riveting.

If you have an hour or two to spare and you're interested in fashion or portrait photography, or even interested in gaining some insight into directing your subject, I highly recommend you check it out.

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5 Comments

Anonymous's picture

Thanks for the article. I almost forgotten about this documentary...we all had to watch it in Photo-History class back in the day(?)...cheers-

William Howell's picture

Could the left be any more pretentious, I know this comment is trollish, but come on and this comment is made possible by a grant from me.

Hans Rosemond's picture

Uhhhh what?

William Howell's picture

I tried to watch the documentary, because I like Avedon, but the voice overlay was too pompous and grandiloquent, I just couldn't make it past five minutes. In my view public tv tries to be oh so affected, Although there is a great documentary of Helmut Newton on YouTube I can recommend.

Rafal Wegiel's picture

One of the most fascinating documentaries I have ever seen... This movie make me realize that these days we focus way too much on gear, photoshop, filters and other crap which means absolutely nothing when it comes to good photography... he was a genius to bring to the light things which no one else could see... Thank You for sharing... I wish I could see this earlier...