What Becomes a Legend Most: A Biography of Richard Avedon (Hardcover)

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“Wise and ebullient.” – Dwight Garner, The New York Times

The first definitive biography of Richard Avedon, a monumental photographer of the twentieth century, from award-winning photography critic Philip Gefter.

In his acclaimed portraits, Richard Avedon captured the iconic figures of the twentieth century in his starkly bold, intimately minimal, and forensic visual style. Concurrently, his work for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue transformed the ideals of women's fashion, femininity, and culture to become the defining look of an era. Yet despite his driving ambition to gain respect in the art world, during his lifetime he was condescendingly dismissed as a "celebrity photographer."

What Becomes a Legend Most is the first definitive biography of this luminary—an intensely driven man who endured personal and professional prejudice, struggled with deep insecurities, and mounted an existential lifelong battle to be recognized as an artist. Philip Gefter builds on archival research and exclusive interviews with those closest to Avedon to chronicle his story, beginning with Avedon’s coming-of-age in New York between the world wars, when cultural prejudices forced him to make decisions that shaped the course of his life.

Compounding his private battles, Avedon fought to be taken seriously in a medium that itself struggled to be respected within the art world. Gefter reveals how the 1950s and 1960s informed Avedon’s life and work as much as he informed the period. He counted as close friends a profoundly influential group of artists—Leonard Bernstein, Truman Capote, James Baldwin, Harold Brodkey, Renata Adler, Sidney Lumet, and Mike Nichols—who shaped the cultural life of the American twentieth century. It wasn't until Avedon's fashion work was exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the late 1970s that he became a household name.

Balancing glamour with the gravitas of an artist's genuine reach for worldy achievement—and not a little gossip—plus sixteen pages of photographs, What Becomes a Legend Most is an intimate window into Avedon's fascinating world. Dramatic, visionary, and remarkable, it pays tribute to Avedon's role in the history of photography and fashion—and his legacy as one of the most consequential artists of his time.

About the Author


Philip Gefter is the author of two previous books: Wagstaff: Before and After Mapplethorpe, which received the 2014 Marfield Prize and was a finalist for both the Publishing Triangle’s Shilts-Grahn Nonfiction Award and a Lambda Literary Award for Best Biography/Memoir; and a collection of essays, Photography After Frank. He was an editor at the New York Times for over fifteen years and wrote regularly about photography for the paper. He lives in New York City. www.philipgefter.com

Praise For…


“Wise and ebullient . . . . Gefter takes the reader inside so many of Avedon’s photo shoots, and so deftly explicates his work, that you’re thirsty to sate your eyes with Avedon’s actual images . . . . One of the achievements of Gefter’s biography is to argue persuasively for Avedon’s place, as a maker of portraits, as one of the 20th century’s most consequential artists.”
Dwight Garner, New York Times

"Gefter weaves the particulars of Avedon’s life story into a larger narrative about American culture in the decades after World War II …. Read in the context of our own precarious political and ecological moment, this assessment alone argues eloquently for the abiding, even urgent relevance of Avedon’s imperfect Art." 
Caroline Weber, The New York Times Book Review

"The portrait that emerges in these pages is not only a biography of the artist—his professional triumphs and disappointments and personal demons—but also a beautifully written assessment of his work, which brings Avedon to life and also vividly evokes his most memorable images." 
Kate Betts, Air Mail

“Revealing, fluent, and very well written—an exemplary biography of an underappreciated artist.”
Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

"Gefter’s expert, comprehensive, and sensitive biography embodies the electricity and complexity of Avedon’s work as he centers Avedon within the crossfire of both the battle to legitimize photography as a fine art form and the struggle for gay rights… Gefter’s engrossing portrait of a master portraitist vividly proves his claim that Avedon is “one of the most consequential artists of the twentieth century."
Booklist, starred review

"Definitive and insightful."
Publishers Weekly

"With this engrossing biography, readers will come away with a greater appreciation of Avedon’s artistic strengths and achievements, as well as the complex man behind the camera."
Library Journal (starred review)

“Imagine the offspring of Marcel Proust and the Energizer Bunny—that’s who Richard Avedon was, a chronicler of fashion, an analyst of social types, the author in pictures of his era. And Philip Gefter captures him. His biography is an Avedon of Avedon.”

Louis Menand, Pulitzer Prize–winning author of The Metaphysical Club

“Mesmerizing. . . . Like Avedon’s blank white backgrounds, blasted with light, Gefter’s pages expose in a controlled and intelligent manner all the bigness and littleness of one of the greats.”
Brad Gooch, New York Times bestselling author of Flannery and City Poet

"A compelling, beautifully written examination of Avedon's life as it reflects the larger cultural milieu of post–World War II New York, and, more importantly, an argument for the role of the artist in contemporary society."

Stephen Shore, photographer


Product Details
ISBN: 9780062442710
ISBN-10: 0062442716
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: October 13th, 2020
Pages: 672
Language: English