By 1957, photographer Richard Avedon was already renowned enough to have a film based, in part, on him: the Audrey Hepburn/Fred Astaire romantic comedy Funny Face, about a bookish young girl's transformation into a high-fashion model after being discovered by a gentlemanly lensman with a penchant for dance.

Astaire's photographer was called Dick Avery, in a not-so-subtle reference to Avedon, who by that stage had more than a decade photographing for Harper's Bazaar under his belt (he switched to its rival, Vogue, in the mid-1960s).

While Astaire's Avery was clearly older than Avedon - and presumably a much better dancer - his geniality and his power to transform pretty girls into iconic models was apparently all Avedon.

The fruits of some of Avedon's photographic labours will be on show from this weekend at the Art Gallery of WA. Richard Avedon: People provides an overview of his classic portraiture style, in which the famous, the beautiful and the notorious were most often posed against a stark white background, with no props or fiddly details to distract the viewer from their engagement with the subject at hand.

Over a six-decade career, Avedon established a strong reputation for both his fashion images and his portrait photography. Even with his classic fashion photographs - elegant 1950s model Dovima posing somewhat incongruously among elephants, a lissome and nonchalant Twiggy in the 1960s - he avowed he was always more interested in the people wearing the clothes, not the clothes themselves.

"His definitive portraits of the powerful and powerless were almost Roman in their severe authority," wrote The New Yorker's Adam Gopnik after Avedon's death at the age of 81 in 2004.

"But they were not the negation of his dancing and delighted fashion photographs, as critics sometimes thought: the portraits were the solid, mineral form of what was, in the fashion photographs, pure liquid. Both were studies in human performance: how we prepare a face to face the world, and how the world shows itself in our faces. As long as people remain curious about life in the 20th century, they will turn to Avedon's photographs to see how it looked, and what it meant."

To that end, the exhibition includes portraits of some of the most important cultural figures of the decades he documented. A bare-chested Truman Capote appears lost in a daydream, his eyes closed and head tilted to one side; lovers and poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky share an intimate kiss; screen goddess Elizabeth Taylor seduces the camera, her feather headwear coiling around her like Medusa's snakes.

Susan Sontag would call his "one of the exemplary photographic careers of this century," with a portfolio that ranged beyond celebrity and fashion photography to include studies of families living tough (In The American West) and political reportage (the project he was working on when he died explored the idea of democracy in America).

But it will always be these starkly lit, up-close-and-personal portraits - simply composed, but conveying complex emotions - for which he is arguably best remembered.

"The photographs which shocked at the time now seem strikingly humane and compassionate, more concerned with the loneliness and pathos of celebrity than with its monstrosity or pretension," ran a Daily Telegraph obituary after his death.

"In any event, such was the power of Avedon's camera to confer a certain kind of immortality that few, if any, ever refused an invitation to be photographed by him."

Richard Avedon: People is at the Art Gallery of WA from August 2 to November 17.

The West Australian

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