Behind the Lens, Inside the Mind. The Life of Frederick Eberstadt
By Manuel Villa
I was sure he paid no attention to it
The American sense of fashion would arguably be vastly different today had Richard Avedon never held a camera in his hands. Recognized as one of the most transformative figures of fashion photography, his career developed hand-in-hand with the post-war massive popularization of fashion. Not only his work, but his very persona — wiry frame, chaotically unkempt hairstyle — was ingrained in the industry. Dick Avery, the fashion photographer character played by Fred Astaire in the 1957 film Funny Face, was based on Avedon.
The Eberstadts were not strangers to the legendary photographer. Frederick’s job at NBC and Isabel’s status as a socialite and patroness of the arts made them a common sight at New York’s avant-garde social events. One of those events, a party hosted in 1957 by a friend, Harold Brodkey, would be fateful.
Avedon was attending the gathering as well. At some point, he and Eberstadt engaged in conversation. “We were talking about the role of women in the advertisement industry,” Eberstadt recalls. The chat went on for some time until, “out of nowhere,” he says, “I heard myself saying ‘You know, if you ever need an assistant, I’d like to work for you.’”
More than six decades later, it is difficult for him to remember the exact chain of thoughts that led him to produce such a random remark. “I guess I’d had a few drinks,” Eberstadt smiles. “It was one of those things one might say but that had no particular meaning. I paid, and I was sure he paid, no attention to it.”
His impression could not have been more inaccurate.
It was a Thursday afternoon, a couple of months after that conversation. Eberstadt’s phone rang. On the other side of the line was Avedon’s personal assistant, calling to let him know her boss had just fired his photo assistant and, if he wanted the job, he could start working next Monday. For what seemed like eternal seconds, he was speechless.
Eberstadt’s recollection of his eventual response is vivid. “I told her ‘I have a job! I’m a married man! I have a son now! I simply can’t do that!’” The lady assistant — undoubtedly questioning the need to kill the messenger — let him know that, in any case, Avedon was in the Caribbean and would not be able to hire anyone else between then and Monday, so she suggested taking that time to make up his mind about showing up or not at the studio the following week. And with that, she hung up and left him confronting a life-altering decision.
The next few days were psychological torture. “It was one of the worst weekends I’ve ever spent in my life,” he sighs. By Saturday night, after two days of pacing back and forth in their flat, his mind bouncing between the pros and the cons of each choice, Isabel finally stepped in. “She looked at me and said, ‘Suit yourself! Do what you feel like doing and then at least one guy is happy!’” he recalls her telling him. Her words had an effect. For now, he decided to least show up at Avedon’s studio.
Monday arrived and, first thing in the morning, Eberstadt called his boss at NBC to let him know he felt ill and would likely not be able to come to work for the rest of the week. He then headed to Avedon’s fabled studio at 58th Street and Park Avenue. He loved what he saw.
“It was fascinating. I really had a wonderful time,” he reminisced. A whole, adventure-like week passed and the weekend arrived. Still unable to arrive to a decision, he decided to remain “ill” and kept missing work. As the second week progressed, however, it was becoming clear where his heart was.
Finally, he called his boss one last time to simply say he had to quit. “He must have thought I was having a nervous breakdown,” Eberstadt recalls. His boss reassured him he had nothing to worry about and offered to place him on a leave of absence, letting him know he could come back anytime. Eberstadt was very grateful and thanked him sincerely, unable as he was to bring himself to reveal the reason for his sudden departure. “It was 1958. As far as I know, I’m still on a leave of absence at NBC,” he jokes.
And that was it. At 31, Eberstadt became the latest of Richard Avedon’s photography assistants and apprentices.
Not everyone was as supportive as Isabel with his choice. His father had a few words for him regarding his new career. “You’re in your element now, spending all your day with trollops,” he remembers him saying.
Sophia Loren, Bette Davis, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marilyn Monroe, Nobel prize laureates, United Nations diplomats, and countless models, male and female. Those were among the figures that would pose in front of Eberstadt’s lens during decades of working as a fashion photographer and as a photojournalist. And it all started with Avedon.
Yet the chance to learn from Avedon was hardly what Eberstadt expect it. In fact, it was hardly a learning experience at all.
Eberstadt found it instructive to watch Avedon developing his creative conceptions, but he was at a loss regarding how his boss came up with them at all. And asking the legend how he did it was pointless: Avedon simply could not explain it. “Dick was a brilliant photographer who knew what he was doing, but who didn’t know how he was doing it,” says Eberstadt. “It was innate. It was like trying to learn how to have blue eyes from him.” It was the deepest of ironies: Working under the mantle of the master of the fashion image, yet unable to acquire any skills from him.
“Hiro, on the other hand, was highly intellectual. I later worked for him and learned a lot,” he says, referring to Yasuhiro Wakabayashi, who at the time also worked at Avedon’s studio and would also become a recognized photographer in his own right. “Hiro knew why he did what he was doing; all the technical stuff, I learned from him,” says Eberstadt.
A photographer’s assistant job naturally entails many roles, but if you worked at Avedon’s studio, they could be simply unique. Some of those fell on Eberstadt, such as pouring drinks for Marilyn Monroe during shooting sessions late at night, when she usually appreciated some vodka. A unique task, indeed, if not a complicated one. Unless, of course, the job description implicitly included watering the star’s drinks down enough to keep her as sober as possible during those late-night sessions — without her noticing the decrease in the octane content she was ingesting. “She drank a lot,” Eberstadt recalls. “Poor thing killed herself when she was in her 30s.”
If few people can say they used to pour drinks to Marilyn Monroe, probably even less can claim the reason they were fired from their jobs involved her as well. But Eberstadt belongs to both confined groups.
It was common sense at the studio to expect Monroe to be late, to the point that Avedon would routinely book another client’s appointment at the same time as hers, calculating she would not only not arrive on time, but it would take her hours to get ready. On one occasion, such predictable tardiness became more prolonged than usual, so Avedon asked the staff to make themselves available to start shooting after 10 P.M. “I said I couldn’t do it. I couldn’t work in the middle of the night. I have a wife and child,” recalls Eberstadt. “And he fired me.”
Ironically, after being fired, Eberstadt didn’t leave the studio. He simply moved to the other side of it to work for Hiro, who by then had become an independent photographer, but remained at Avedon’s studio, using it as his own headquarters. Right after their now-mutual ex-boss fired Eberstadt, Hiro hired him as his own assistant. He would remain under his wing for another year.
So being let go by Avedon, far from representing the end of the relationship between the two men, was likely more a manifestation of its complicated—even amusing—nature. Even years after Eberstadt became an independent photographer and finally left Avedon’s studio for good, they were friendly, and Eberstadt would stop by now and then.
On one occasion, Eberstadt had to choose among several images he had shot for a very important job for Vogue, so he paid Avedon a visit to ask for his input. He found his ex-boss at his desk, on the phone. Spreading the proof sheets in front of him, Eberstadt tried to explain what he was looking for. Without pausing his phone conversation or making eye contact, his former employer briefly looked at the images, grabbed a grease pencil, wrote ‘x’ marks on a few and seamlessly handed the sheets back to Eberstadt, never appearing to have listened to any word he uttered.
“And I think ‘Well, fuck you, you bastard!’” Eberstadt recalls in laughter. “I thought he was blowing me off!” Fuming, he headed back to his own studio and chose about a dozen images to print, intentionally leaving out all the ones Avedon had marked. The next day, however, after reviewing the material one last time before sending it in, it hit him. “Son of a bitch, he was right all along!” he laughed. “Kind of without looking at them, he could tell which ones were the right pictures. That was really his gift. And it was also infuriating!”
The relationship between the two men would go up and down all the time. “I think it probably depended on a lot of things, including how good his coffee had been that morning,” Eberstadt jokes. Still, he is aware being with Avedon is what got him started, something that he is grateful for.
About a year after working with Hiro, Eberstadt decided to finally become an independent photographer. Not his wisest decision, he confesses. “I left too soon, thinking I was a big photographer,” he reflects. “It was a decision more out of vanity than common sense. I was too full of myself.”
For a long time, the art of fashion photography felt more like the art of fashionably waiting for an assignment. Sometimes the telephone went silent for so long, he began suspecting it was broken. “It was hard on the nerves,” he recalls.
Eventually, though, his work started getting attention and he landed jobs at magazines such as Vogue and Life, slowly becoming a known name in the world of photography.
The rising recognition of his work was still not reflected in his father’s opinion of it, however. In 1960, the famous English photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones married Princess Margaret, the younger sister of Queen Elizabeth II, becoming the first British commoner in four centuries to wed a king’s daughter. Eberstadt’s father let his son know he should feel grateful for sharing Armstrong-Jones’ profession. “That brings your social position above that of a bootblack,” he recalls him saying.
After a number of successful years, fashion photography began to feel like the “same old, same old,” Eberstadt says. He began veering into photojournalism, shooting and photo-editing for the Sunday features of many of the big names—Life, Look, Esquire, Herald Tribune, The New York Times—covering education, academia, the arts, among other subjects. He would enjoy a successful career behind the lens for the following three decades.
Until his mind shattered.
Part 3: The Abyss