How Richard Avedon fell in love with France

A new book documents six decades of work by the American photographer

Avedon’s France collects photographs, interviews, publications and writings, as well as a selection of essays, all exploring the links between Richard Avedon and France.

From the 1940s, when he photographed fashion collections in Paris for Harper’s Bazaar, to his 1968 trip to work on photographer Jacques Henri Lartigue’s monograph Diary of a Century, right through to his collaboration with Nicole Wisniak for the magazine Egoïste from 1985, rare was the year when Avedon was not found in France.

In Avedon’s France, we see his portraits of famous writers, Colette and Jean Cocteau; directors of the emerging French New Wave, Francois Truffaut and Alain Resnais; and actresses such as Catherine Deneuve and Jeanne Moreau.

There are also stills from his work as visual consultant for Stanley Donen’s film Funny Face (1956), an adaptation of a George Gershwin musical. Shot for the most part in France, the film stars Fred Astaire and is loosely based on Avedon’s career as a fashion photographer in an idealised version of 1950s Paris.

The retrospective monograph Diary of a Century brought worldwide attention to Jacques Henri Lartigue’s work. Avedon’s layouts were done skilfully, revealing the best of Lartigue’s photographs. In the afterword, Avedon wrote, “I think Jacques Henri Lartigue is the most deceptively simple and penetrating photographer in the short, embarrassing history of that so called art [photography]. While his predecessors and contemporaries were creating and serving traditions, he did what no photographer has done before or since. He photographed his own life.”

From the mid-1980s, Richard Avedon spent many years working with the French magazine Egoïste, an elegant document of arts, literature, performance, theatre and dance through a mix of reports, adverts, portraits and fashion photographs. Its was founded and edited by Nicole Wisniak who, in an interview with The Independent, described it as “the subjective dictionary of an epoch”.

A sought-after item – issues cost £30 in the 1990s – the magazine included interviews of Ava Gardner by Princess Caroline of Monaco, Catherine Deneuve by the writer Francoise Sagan, and Mick Jagger by Jodie Foster. With Egoïste, Avedon photographed celebrities including Juliette Binoche and Gerard Depardieu, and created styled shoots that depicted women in desperate situations – including prostitution. “Egoïste” said Avedon, “is the only magazine in the world to give me completely free expression.” Reading this book, it seems like France offered the same.