"Maybe that's where I learned about discipline and what's beautiful about rigor, what's compelling about craft, those months listening to him going over and over one phrase," Avedon told a reporter.
He dropped out of high school at 17 and found a job as an errand boy with a small New York photographic company, even as he dreamed of being a poet. He joined the Merchant Marine in 1942, and with a Rolleiflex camera his father had given him as a going-away gift, he applied to the Merchant Marine's photography branch.
When he left the Merchant Marine in 1944, he found work with Bonwit Teller, one of New York's most fashionable department stores. About a year later, he took a portfolio of his work to Harper's Bazaar. He was hired for the magazine's Junior Bazaar section.
At Harper's Bazaar, Avedon set about changing the look of fashion photography. He moved his models out of the studio -- to the beach, the zoo, a circus, the waterfront, a junkyard, the pyramids of Egypt -- and had them drop the frozen-faced mannequin look. When he was in the studio, he eliminated props and backgrounds, an approach he would use to singular advantage in years to come.
More than 80 portraits of the famous -- including Mae West, Bert Lahr, Marian Anderson, Louis Armstrong and Charlie Chaplin -- were compiled in the 1959 book "Observations" (Simon & Schuster), with comments by Truman Capote.
Although his portraits had been represented in various group shows over the years, including Edward Steichen's "The Family of Man" at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1955, it was a 1962 Smithsonian Institution exhibit that began the shift in how the critics viewed his work.
By the mid-1960s, Avedon was the hottest fashion photographer in town. Revlon, DuPont, Pabst, Maidenform, Cartier and Douglas Aircraft were among the high-profile companies clamoring for his signature look.
Avedon served as staff photographer with Harper's Bazaar from 1946 to 1965. He worked in the same capacity for Vogue from 1966 to 1970.
"In a field where something new and flashy is needed every season, Avedon was at the top of his game for over 40 years," said Arthur Ollman, director of the Museum of Photographic Arts in San Diego. "The way we see fashion, and ultimately the way we have pictured women, was totally altered by Richard Avedon. And it was not just any 40 years, but it was the 40 years in which feminism came into the public consciousness."
In the summer of 1970, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts mounted a comprehensive exhibit of Avedon photographs, said to be the largest exhibit ever devoted to the work of a single photographer. A highlight of the show was a collection of portraits of the Chicago Seven defendants in the 1969 conspiracy trial of antiwar activists.
Pamela Maffei McCarthy, Avedon's editor at the New Yorker, said portraiture is a tricky business. "It's very difficult to go behind the facade," she said. "He was able to get the inside out, and uniquely so. He was able to expose character."
Beginning in the late 1970s, Avedon spent five summers trekking across 17 states to photograph more than 700 people who, in his view, represented the American West.
Commissioned by Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum, "In the American West" offered 120 powerful and affecting portraits of "ordinary, hard-working people." Photographed in harsh light that exposed every sag, wrinkle and blemish, they included miners, drifters, carnies, bartenders, waitresses and oil field roustabouts. Perhaps the most memorable was a pale, nearly hairless beekeeper with thousands of bees forming dark free-form tattoos on his bare torso.
In Richard Avedon's West, there was no John Wayne, no Gary Cooper, no Marlboro Man. "This is about a class," he told The Washington Post. "It's about very hard times, very long hours, hard work, unrewarding lives with very little expectation of upward mobility."