Born Into Art

Posted on October 28, 2008 by Alexandra Avakian

Self-portrait of the author's father, Aram Avakian

Now I'll move on to the personal intro of the book, but these photos are not in it.

This is a self-portrait of my dad in the New York City subway at Penn Station, taken in the 1950s before I was born. He was a photographer and TV editor then; later he went on to edit and direct movies. But around the time he took this photo he was shooting pictures of great jazz musicians, whom my Uncle George Avakian, the legendary jazz producer, was working with. Dad had already graduated from Yale, been an officer in the U.S. Navy, studied at the Sorbonne and lived in Paris. He was an existentialist.

Composite photo of the author's mother and father

My mother, Dorothy Tristan, was a Ford model back in the 1950s. This photo is of her, taken by my Dad for a Life magazine story about them and their movie End of the Road, in 1969. By that time she was an accomplished, classically trained actress in the theatre. She also did movies and TV. She is still an actress, as well as a screenplay writer, and she is working on a novel.

She was the stunning blond in Klute. My stepfather is the distinguished movie and theater director John D. Hancock. The film Bang the Drum Slowly might ring a bell. I had an exciting upbringing in California, New York, and London, among other places.

Though my family was on the cutting-edge creatively and I grew up around great artists of all kinds, my parents were also socially conscious. I remember my mother taking me to an anti-Vietnam demo in Central Park.

My father taught me very early about photography. By the time I was nine he had already dissected Life magazine essays by great photographers with me, showing me why one picture was run large, another small, and what an establishing shot and a good ender was. I sat on his lap while he was editing movies as he explained to me why he was cutting in a certain spot. He let me look through the movie camera when he directed a film so I could see how the director of photography had composed a shot. As a kid I used to help with all kinds of things on movie sets from special effects to being an extra. What an education.

By the time I was in college my father had built me a darkroom and edited my photo essays with me. Becoming a photographer was the most natural thing in the world for me. I was born for it. Dad never wanted me to photograph conflict, though. But this was something I just had to do, having been fascinated by what people will do to be free since I was in college. My first chance to do that was in Haiti as the people revolted and dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier fled. But that's another story.

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