Richard Avedon on Portrait Photography

A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is me, must be discovered in someone else willing to take part in a fiction he cannot possibly know about. My concerns are not his. We have separate ambitions for the image. His need to plead his case probably goes as deep as my need to plead mine, but the control is with me.

A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.

The first part of the sitting is a learning process for the subject and for me. I have to decide upon the correct placement of the camera, its precise distance from the subject, the distribution of the space around the figure, and the height of the lens. At the same time, I am observing how he moves, reacts, expressions that cross his face so that, in making the portrait, I can heighten through instruction what he does naturally, how he is.

The subject must become familiar with the fact that, during the sitting, he cannot shift his weight, can hardly move at all, without going out of focus or changing his position in the space. He has to learn to relate to me and the lens as if we were one and the same and to accept the degree of discipline and concentration involved. As the sitting goes on, he begins to understand what I am responding to in him and finds his own way of dealing with that knowledge. The process has a rhythm that is punctuated by the click of the shutter and my assistants changing the plates of film after each exposure. There are times when I speak and times when I do not, times when I react too strongly and destroy the tension that is the photograph.

These disciplines, these strategies, this silent theater, attempt to achieve an illusion: that everything embodied in the photograph simply happened, that the person in the portrait was always there, was never told to stand there, was never encouraged to hide his hands, and in the end was not even in the presence of a photographer.

Richard Avedon – In The American West (1985)


A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result.

Richard Avedon – Camera Magazine (November, 1974)