A new biography of Richard Avedon is full of “false facts,” according to the foundation representing the photographer’s estate. The Richard Avedon Foundation first made public its claims about Norma Stevens and Steven Aronson’s Avedon: Something Personal in December 2017, shortly after the book was released by Spiegel and Grau, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Today, the Foundation released an extensive document outlining 203 alleged errors contained in the book.
“The book contains hundreds of documented factual errors which we have presented to Spiegel and Grau and offered to walk them through all of the supporting evidence in a sincere effort to get them to correct the record,” James Martin, the executive director of the Richard Avedon Foundation, said in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “Unfortunately, they continue to turn a blind eye. Now that the book has stirred negative criticism, the publishers are playing into the current culture of peddling alternative facts.”
The alleged errors contained in the 720-page tome range in severity from details like Avedon’s hair color and the address where his grandparents lived, to more serious allegations about the dates of certain exhibitions, Avedon’s relationships with members of his family, the location of his studio, his interactions with famous sitters, and more. Some are very gossipy in tone, like number 115: “John Avedon did not have a crush on Doe [Avedon].” Others, if true, suggest the book was very poorly fact-checked, like numbers 81, 82, and 83: “The Avedon family’s original name was not Abaddon”; “Avedon’s father was not born in Lomza”; and “Avedon’s father was not born in 1889.” Others are incredibly specific, like number 43:
Avedon was not in the country on July 26, 1970 when the New York Times review of the Minneapolis show came out. The entire section of the book is a fantasy. Not only does Avedon’s calendar show him to be out of the country on this date, the Foundation possesses a ship-to-shore recording of a telephone conversation from Avedon to his Studio on this precise date — July 26, 1970.
The Foundation has renewed its demand that Spiegel Grau cease publication of Avedon: Something Personal. In December, Penguin Random House refused, responding that Norma Stevens — a longtime director of Avedon’s studio — “recounts the tales he told her in the almost thirty years she worked alongside him.” The Avedon Foundation has claimed that the bulk of the book is in fact based on an unfinished, semi-autobiographical novel that Avedon was writing at the time of his death, and that Stevens stole the manuscript.
In response to an inquiry from Hyperallergic about today’s allegations, Spiegel and Grau provided the following statement:
Avedon: Something Personal is Norma Stevens’s tribute to the man she had a close business partnership and friendship with for nearly thirty years, until his death in 2004. While the Foundation has created an extensive list of “errors” they perceive in the book, they have provided no evidence that these are in fact errors. In some cases there are differences of opinion or disputes with subjective passages; many of the issues they have raised are of a minute and insignificant nature or are legitimately in dispute. In any case, it is not unusual to make mistakes in a book of this nature, especially since the subject of the book, Richard Avedon, is the originator of many of the errors: he was well known for embellishing stories or simply fabricating. Furthermore, memoir itself is a subjective genre, where what is remembered has its own legitimacy and meaning. Our authors, with the input of over a hundred others, have written a book that is — and is clearly stated in the jacket description to be — part memoir, part biography, and part oral history, and we stand by it.
“This book does not belong as part of the historical record and should not serve as the basis for any legitimate future study of Avedon’s life and work,” Martin stated. “Almost every quote is wildly invented. Avedon would be appalled by [Stevens’s] vindictive agenda, her bold and lying assertion that she was his hand-picked biographer, and her overwhelming sloppiness.”
Despite the Foundation’s allegations, reviews of the book have been largely positive. Even on its Amazon page — aside from a one-star review that consists solely of the Foundation’s December press release — the book has mostly four- and five-star reviews. Reviewing it for the New York Times, Parul Sehgal praised Avedon: Something Personal for its behind-the-scenes glimpses into the photographer’s life and work, all the while taking its apparent factual inconsistencies in stride.
“Avedon’s secretiveness might have scuttled a traditional biography, but it’s sidestepped with Stevens’s oral history approach,” Sehgal wrote. “The snapshots are affectionate and admiring, and the contradictions in them can give you whiplash — until the end Avedon was pavonine and recessive, autocratic and inhibited, everyone’s best friend and utterly inscrutable. It doesn’t add up. It can’t.”
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