The Richard Avedon Foundation is demanding that a new biography of the photographer cease publication, alleging that it is “filled with countless inaccuracies” and is partly based on a work of fiction Avedon was working on at the time of his death. The book, Avedon: Something Personal by Norma Stevens and Steven Aronson, was released on November 21 by Penguin Random House’s imprint Spiegel and Grau. In a statement today, the Avedon foundation called on Spiegel and Grau “to cease publication, distribution, or any derivative or collateral use” of the book.
“The lack of fact-checking is outrageous because it’s so willful,” James Martin, the executive director of the Avedon Foundation, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “I have spoken with many former colleagues and assistants going back to the 1960s, including people interviewed in [Norma Stevens’s] book, and none of us can believe the extraordinary liberties Stevens took in creating this so-called biography. Many can’t believe the words that she put into their mouths.”
Martin alleges that Stevens, who was the director of Avedon’s studio for some 30 years, stole an unfinished book of fiction that Avedon had been working on with Doon Arbus at the time of his death in 2004, and used it as the basis for Avedon: Something Personal, presenting many of the manuscript’s fictionalized accounts of real events as facts. Martin claims that in Avedon’s unfinished novel, tentatively titled “An Unauthorized Biography,” the photographer had “used certain details from Avedon’s actual life as a means of creating fictional stories that deliberately blurred fiction and fact as an integral part of the storytelling.” Those “fictional stories” would have become incorporated into Avedon: Something Personal and presented as fact.
Stevens and Aronson’s book presents itself as “equal parts memoir, biography, and oral history,” drawing on Stevens’s closeness with the photographer and extensive involvement in the operations of his studio. The 720-page book claims to tell the story of Avedon’s entire life and career, up to his death in 2004 while on assignment in San Antonio for the New Yorker, which hired him as its first-ever staff photographer. However, even details related to Avedon’s death are disputed by the Avedon Foundation, which alleges that Stevens was in New York when he died, not at his side as she claims in the book. The Avedon Foundation’s statement goes on to outline 10 specific alleged falsehoods and mistakes in Avedon: Something Personal.
“The book is engulfed with many such errors of fact,” Martin concludes. “It all needs to be fixed, and it’s going to take a lot of effort to do it. It will require the cooperation of the publisher for certain. But like any other media company, they have an obligation to set the record straight and to do so quickly.”
Hyperallergic has reached out to Penguin Random House regarding these claims and will update this article as more information becomes available.
Update, 12/21/2017, 1pm EST: A spokesperson at Penguin Random House has responded to Hyperallergic’s inquiry regarding the Richard Avedon Foundation’s allegations with the following statement:
Avedon himself, in his last will, appointed Norma Stevens as the founding director of his Foundation, thereby entrusting his legacy to her. The book is an important and meaningful account by the person who was in a privileged position to observe and know Richard Avedon as well as anybody else and to reflect on him. Furthermore, the book is not a traditional biography. As the flap copy says, the book is “equal parts memoir, biography, and oral history.” It consists in large measure of impressions — those of his close friend and business partner Norma Stevens, as well as those of over a hundred other people who knew him well and contributed their own memories and impressions. The story she tells recounts the tales he told her in the almost thirty years she worked alongside him.
We will examine the claimed inaccuracies and make any appropriate corrections in future printings. Our publication plans for the book remain unchanged.