Gideon Lewin Talk: Avedon Behind the Scenes 1964-1980

Wednesday night the Fashion Institute of Technology hosted a talk by practicing photographer Gideon Lewin. Lewin was Richard Avedon‘s photography assistant for 16 years from 1964-1980, and his talk focused on his time spent working alongside Avedon.  Lewin’s lecture was not thesis driven, nor was it history of his working career.  Instead we were treated to several of his personal anecdotes about working with Avedon, along with elaboration on some of the lighting and processing techniques that they utilized to create photos.  Through these sporadic glimpses into the intimate workspace of the studio, it became possible to imagine what it was like to work with Avedon during the 60s and 70s.  Lewin also shared several  behind-the-scenes images with us–many of which, I suspect are featured in his newly released book Avedon: Behind the Scenes.  Among these were several interesting photographs that resulted from Lewin turning the camera around on the photographer.

Lewin began his talk by placing us within the year that he was hired. It was 1964 and as he rang the bell at Avedon’s east 58th street studio, his reception by the model Wilhelmina, immediately convinced him that he was in the right place.  Accepting an offer of a $65 weekly salary, Lewin embarked on a 16 year working relationship and friendship with a photographer who has come to be regarded as one of the most important contributors to fashion photography.

In April of 1965, Lewin discussed working with Avedon on an issue of Harper’s Bazaar for which Avedon was the guest editor.  He described the assignment “like boot camp for assistants”, where they worked diligently around the clock processing and printing film to see immediate results.  This was a time of calculated measuring and mixing, and waiting in anticipation to see the final products of photography.  It was not until Jean Shrimpton started to fall asleep on set that they finally broke, and the iconic cover concept was realized by Ruth Ansel only in the final hour.  She cut a paper helmut out to cover the less than ideal hat that Jean Shrimpton was wearing in the actual photo, and the result was playful, modern, and provocative in a way that spoke to the zeitgeist of the mid 1960s.  When discussing the issue, which is also notable for its inclusion of Donyale Luna, who is popularly credited as being the first African American model to break into mainstream fashion, Lewin notes, “it was about space exploration, it was about the youth, about op-art, about the frug…”  He also confessed that although the issue was seen as an artistic success, commercially it was very controversial as many conservative advertisers did not respond well to the inclusion of black models.

Lewin also described a trip to Paris for Avedon’s first assignment for Vogue, which began as an idea that evolved over the course of their plane ride from models holding branches, to models perched in trees at the tuileries, to the realization that a tree would somehow have to be brought into the studio.  Avedon was not someone whom you could tell that something couldn’t be done , as Lewin described, “the idea was his, the problem was mine.”  After several days of research and asking around, Lewin was able to find a tree that was about to be cut down, and it was brought back to the studio at the grand palais, which resulted in a striking shoot where an assortment of models including Marisa Berenson and Jean Shrimpton were lifted one by one into trees, where they were poised against a sparse white background in a spread that was charged with dynamism and sharp contrast.

We learned about the difficulties of traveling with 21 trunks of custom made furs and shoes for an assignment in Japan. The model Veruschka, a striking Amazon of a woman, required size 13 shoes–a size that was almost as difficult to come by as an appropriately tall Japanese male model to accompany her in some of the images.  As Lewin showed us photographs we learned about the people who were crouched under the skirts of dresses to make them billow, and how he had to run with lights and reflectors to keep up with the photographer and models involved in shoots.  We learned about the solarization experiments that Lewin utilized to help create the popular Beatles posters in 1967, and about all of the work and planning that went into producing several of Richard Avedon’s exhibitions over the years.

It was wonderful to hear this insider perspective on how the creative and technical process worked.  And perhaps most telling of the milieu of the studio, and relationships between employees were Lewin’s images of them all fooling around together, ascending the branches in Paris to create a family tree, Avedon holding a falcon that was used in an Angelica Houston shoot in Ireland, several employees dressing up and pantomiming stories to create get-well-cards for studio employees—all of these images brought to life the camaraderie that develops amongst those who work closely together, and it was this element of Lewin’s lecture that was the most touching and most unique in terms of discussing Avedon’s work.

The talk was well attended, and the questions from the crowd were particularly interesting to me.  One undertone that was palpable throughout Lewin’s stories was the importance of sacrifice and hard work to make things happen.  Working 24 hours on a shoot, the patience and skill that it takes to process film in a darkroom, and the surrender of personal life that is sometimes necessary to pursue a successful career.  There were several comments from the audience and from Lewin himself, whom decried that today’s current youth generation does not work hard or require the talent and sacrifice that was necessary during earlier times.  Digital photography in particular, was harshly criticized, and many audience members felt that today’s photographers and periodicals are not nearly as creative and innovative as yesterdays were.

This was something that I felt extremely mixed about.   Personally, I love early issues of Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue.  I like books and records, and the smell of Dektol is soothing to me as it conjures memories of the relaxed environment of the darkroom and the soft sound of running water.  It’s sad to see film becoming more and more rarefied and I firmly believe that traditional film photography and digital photography are two separate art forms that overlap in parts.  Yet, at the same time, the democracy of digital photography is extremely exciting, and the potential of the medium allows other things to be done that transcend the limitations of traditional photography.  I think that both forms are equally valuable. Although publications like Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar are now filled with advertising and have become more mainstream over time, there are now a variety of competitor magazines that feature fashion and culture in new and innovative ways.  Without the lens of time to filter the most successful and innovative of these artists, photographers, and periodicals from the more ordinary, are we really in a position to make a fair judgment about the success of the current generation?  I also couldn’t help but wonder how many of the people in the crowd who felt that the current generation wasn’t as creative had recently been to an independent bookstore, gone to a gallery opening to see the work of an artist they did not know, or attended a fashion show at an alternative venue.  While it is important to embrace history and heritage, I also think that it is equally as important to innovate with the present and to explore the possibility that comes with change and the viewpoints of other generations.

When pressed by an audience member to cite his favorite Avedon photograph, although he claimed that there were many favorites that he had a strong appreciation for, Dovima With Elephants was Lewin’s image of choice, a pick that many from multiple generations would agree with.

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Images:

1- Richard Avedon photographed by Gideon Lewin

2 & 3- John Lennon & Paul McCartney photographed by Richard Avedon, 1967

4- Verushka wearing John Paul Goebel photographed by Richard Avedon, 1966

5 -Harper’s Bazaar cover featuring model Jean Shrimpton, photographed by Richard Avedon, 1965

6- Dovima With Elephants, photographed by Richard Avedon, 1955

7- Installation view, The Model as Muse exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art (see a former WT review of this show from guest contributor Rachel Morris Tu here)

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