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Richard Avedon, Observations

Contributed by Stéphane Darricau on Nov 18th, 2019. Artwork published in .
Richard Avedon, Observations
©Simon & Schuster. License: All Rights Reserved.

Alexey Brodovitch’s infatuation with Didot (in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, which he art-directed from 1934 to 1958, or on this stunning slipcase for Richard Avedon’s first monograph) is well-documented — it can almost be argued that Brodovitch single-handedly made Didot the typeface of choice for the fashion industry (see Abbott Miller’s insightful article “Through thick and thin: fashion and type” in Eye 65, Autumn 2007).

The only mystery that remains is thus: where did Brodovitch get his Didot from? There’s not one single Didot in Mac McGrew’s American Metal Typefaces of the Twentieth Century — although there are plenty of Bodoni revivals, starting with Morris Fuller Benton’s ATF Bodoni (1910–11), which Brodovitch duly used for the text sizes in Harper’s Bazaar (the face was available for machine setting through Monotype as well as Intertype, among others). Did Brodovitch bring back display sizes of Didot from the yearly trips to Paris (he could have bought some from Deberny & Peignot there) he was making up until 1939 (see Kerry William Purcell’s Alexey Brodovitch, p. 58)?

Was the Didot used in Observations a phototypesetting display face (this was 1959, after all)? And if so, who provided it?


  • Didot




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14 Comments on “Richard Avedon, Observations

  1. This is an interesting question, Stéphane! 1959 is late enough for phototype, so that’s possible here. The most likely supplier in New York would be Photo-Lettering, but none of the Didots in the One Line Manual match this Didot. I think lettering is as likely as type for a cover like this.

  2. Hi Stephen. I do agree with you about this cover being possibly hand-lettered. It still doesn’t tell us where the Didot used in Harper’s Bazaar (which is definitely type) came from.

  3. Stéphane, do you happen to have images of the Didot used in Harper’s Bazaar?

    One aspect that also suggests lettering for Observations is the optical size. The book measures 11″×15″. Can standard phototype blown up to this scale have hairlines this thin? Here’s a detail from the slipcase.

    Image: Between the Covers

    The book’s interior is set in italics from a Didot or Bodoni (with big initials that look similar to the cover lettering). The images shown on are too small for an ID of the text face, though.

    As Stephen has hinted at, Photo-Lettering, Inc. indeed had an impressive range of Didots. Here’s a compilation of the faces listed in the “pure Didots” sections in their One Line catalog from 1971, in semi-condensed and normal widths. I’m skipping the expanded, wide and broad ones as well as the moderately and vigorously stylized ones. Also omitted are all faces that were exclusively available in italic, extrabold, open, or shaded variants:

    Beaux Arts Didot, Benguiat Elegance, Bretagne Didot, Coryn Chateau, Coryn Didot, Coryn Distingue, Coryn Elite Didot, Coryn Marquis, Didi (T), Didot Contempo, Firmin Didot (T), French Didot (T), Stan Strate, Szoeke Didot, Thompson Colonial, Thompson Georgian, Vogue Didot (T). Those marked with (T) were adaptations of existing typefaces (metal or film), and not exclusive to PLINC.

    In Alphabet Thesaurus Vol. 2 (p. 430), the editors remark:

    It is highly probable that C.E. Coryn has contributed more to the widespread development and acceptance of Didot than any other American designer. He approaches the letter with complete authority. One need only study the originals to see that Coryn has mastered the art of interpreting the French spirit in American terms

    One of Coryn’s Didots was revived by Tânia Raposo for House Industries and their digital incarnation of PLINC, as Coryn (Galaxy) Didot. This take is not a “pure Didot” and was filed under “Corvinus” instead.

  4. Hi Stephen

    Thank you for these penetrating views. It may well be that Brodovitch used phototypesetting Didots in his work from the 1950s (here’s a cover for Harper’s Bazaar, November 1950, for instance).

    Sadly, I’m unable to find good pictures of Brodovitch’s work for the magazine in the 1930s/1940s — all I have are crappy scans I made from Purcell’s book a long time ago…

  5. We have some issues from the period at Letterform Archive and I’ll scan them this week.

  6. Florian, when I saw these letterforms I thought of Coryn, too. I looked for a bit, trying to track down some info. Nothing conclusive but I saw in some old copyright listings that he did boatloads of lettering for book covers (mostly coloring books) at Merrill Co. Publishers during the late 1950s and early 60s.

    I’m interested to know which lettering artists Brodovitch regularly used. I have one of his books, I’ll browse now with purpose!

  7. The Archive’s collection of Bazaar is limited to 1938–39. None of them use Didot as far as I can see. Most headlines are hand lettered, and some do seem to reference Didot. The body text is set in Bodoni. Here are headlines from the May 1939 issue:

  8. Wow. Quite an eye-opener ! Thanks very much, Stephen !

  9. What’s the difference between a Corvinus and a Scotch Roman? I’m working on something in the same vein and am really curious. It’s funny that House’s Coryn Galaxy is labeled a Didot.

    I also see Onyx and Spire as Scotch Romans.

  10. Garrison, I’m not sure what PLINC’s “Corvinus” criteria is, but I’ll bet it was theirs alone. I’ve never seen anyone use the typeface name (Corvinus) as a classification. PLINC’s Thesaurus categories are interesting and can be useful for browsing their huge catalog, but the terms are often non-standard. Many of the named sections are meant more as “similar to” than a widely known genre.

  11. From the section description in One Line Manual of Styles:

    Styles flavored with one or more Corvinus characteristic. […] Pure Corvinus is distinguished by three weights of stroke in many of the letters.

    This feature can be seen best in letters like A, E, T. The reason why Coryn Galaxy is put into this drawer probably is due to another shared characteristic, though – its squarish rounds with (almost) straight sides in letters like o.

    One defining characteristic of Scotch Romans is bracketed serifs. In Onyx, the serifs are generally unbracketed, and only thin stems like the left ones in M or N have filets. In regard to Spire, there’s no consensus among digitizations: LTC Spire has bracketing, while GroupType’s version is largely unbracketed. At least initially, according to De Vinne’s definition, Scotch Romans are “not noticeably condensed or compressed”, which would exclude Onyx and Spire.

  12. Thanks for clarifying, Florian! So Onyx and Torino are seen as Didones?

  13. In my experience, “Didone” is used as a container for everything that has a distinct vertical contrast (AKA “contrast type: expansion, as produced by a flexible or pointed nib pen”, see TypeCooker) and, of lesser importance, unbracketed serifs. More specifically, it’s for designs that share the characteristics found in the archetypes of Didot and Bodoni.

    As far as Photo-Lettering is concerned, they put Torino into … Torinos, of course! Easy, huh? This section sits between Centidots, another portmanteau for faces with “Century-like shapes combined with Didot hairlines”, and Criterions and Modern Roman No. 20, “a group of designs in which Torino characteristics and flavor are carefully developed and sharpened to keen sensitivity”. This then is followed by Scotch and Caledonia (the latter is the Latin name for Scotland, chosen by Dwiggins for his Scotch-inspired design). Onyx appears in Bodonis and Didots: Triple Condensed.

  14. Centidots! Perfect explanation! Funny enough, today I started to see Century’s place in all this. It’s maybe my most favorite Scotch design. Especially Bartuska’s take.

    Some of these classifications are separated by very fine lines (puns, for sure). A super fun cross section of type!

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