Richard Avedon, whose high-profile fashion photography of the 1950s and 1960s was eclipsed in later years by his own distinctive and evocative portraits of the known and unknown, died yesterday of a brain hemorrhage at a hospital in San Antonio, where he was on a photo shoot for the New Yorker. He was 81.
Avedon's magazine project, tentatively titled "On Democracy" and scheduled to run the week of the election, started out with pictures taken at the Democratic and Republican national conventions, where he had made portraits of Karl Rove, James Carville, former president Jimmy Carter and Illinois Senate candidate Barak Obama, among other delegates and speakers.
Avedon's stark and unsettling portraits have appeared in America's most prestigious magazines and museums for the past half-century. He was considered the world's most famous, and perhaps richest, photographer.
His celebrity subjects over the years included Pablo Picasso, Andy Warhol, Frank Lloyd Wright, Marilyn Monroe and hundreds of others. They were, as one photographer described them, "pinned like butterflies" on a seamless white background, staring at Avedon's big 8-by-10 Deardorf camera.
Ordinary Americans also were frequently the subject of his arresting, at times disturbing portraits.
The New Yorker project had grown in recent weeks to include ordinary people, including gun collectors in Winnemuca, Nev.; two homeless men in Reno, Nev.; soldiers at Fort Hood, Tex., and burn victims from the war in Iraq being treated at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio. These were people whose lives were affected by the decisions of political leaders he portrayed at the Boston and New York conventions this summer.
Avedon began experiencing headaches and blurred vision while shooting tanks Thursday at Fort Hood and was unable to continue the project.
He also had scheduled shootings for this week in Washington of Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Chief Justice of the United States William H. Rehnquist.
For decades, Avedon was one of the nation's most celebrated fashion and portrait photographers. The way he captured women made several of them rich and famous. His early models included Dorian Leigh, Dorothy Horan ("Dovima") and, perhaps most famous of all, Suzy Parker. He later worked with Lauren Hutton, Twiggy and Brooke Shields.
He was the first staff photographer hired by the New Yorker, a magazine that ran photographs only rarely before Tina Brown took over as editor in 1992. His 1963 portrait of Malcolm X was the first full-page photograph published in the magazine.
Avedon described "a separation between fashion and what I call my deeper work," in a 1974 Newsday interview. "Fashion is where I make my living. I'm not knocking it; it's a pleasure to make a living that way. . . . Then there's the deeper pleasure of doing my portraits. . . . I consider myself to be a portrait photographer."
Richard Avedon was born in New York City. His father, Jacob Israel Avedon, was a Russian Jewish immigrant who grew up in a New York orphanage and later operated a successful retail clothing business called Avedon's Fifth Avenue.
As a boy, Avedon was casually interested in photography and kept a scrapbook of photos that his father consulted for the dress business.
He and a cousin sometimes sat outside the service entrance of their grandparents' apartment listening to music coming from the apartment of another of the building's residents, the famed Russian composer-pianist Sergei Rachmaninoff.