Alexey Brodovitch: ASTONISH ME.

Haarper’s Bazaar page by Alexey Brodovitch

“Astonish me” – Alexey Brodovitch

Alexey Brodovitch is an individual who has had a MASSIVE influence in the history of photography, design, and much more.

He influenced Robert Frank, Richard Avedon, Harpers Bazaar, and brought modern typography and design to America.

Let me talk about why Alexey Brodovitch is so great, and his immense influence in the role of photography and design.

From the series: LEARN FROM THE MASTERS >

1. Never compromise

‘If an artist is to maintain his integrity, he must be responsible to himself; he must seek a public which will accept his vision, rather than pervert his vision to fit that public.’

To start off, Alexey Brodovitch had a strong vision of what he believed in when it came to design, typography, and photography.

He was uncompromising. He was called an asshole by a lot of his students and people he worked with at Harper’s Bazaar. But it was through his singular and rigid style, that we weren’t for him, we would not have innovations such as:

  1. White space: He used so much white space in his design and layouts, that he was called racist.
  2. Combining text and images: believe it or not, before him, designers never combined text and images.
  3. Radically cropping images: he would radically crop images and photos to make dynamic and edgy layout and spreads.
  4. He innovated by creating book and magazine covers with only text in big and bold letters — another innovation.
  5. One of the first designers to integrate color into layouts and covers.

2. On fighting boredom

“The public is being spoiled by good technical quality photographs in magazines, on television, in the movies, and they have become bored. The disease of our age is this boredom and a good photographer must successfully combat it. The only way to do this is by invention—by surprise.”

When you look at the designs of Alexey, you aren’t bored. His designs come to life, and jump off the page. He integrates images that complement the text, and sometimes mirror the shape and form of the text.

Alexey innovated with his BALLET book, by integrating blur, motion, and I think this is what inspired Robert Frank to also make “technically imperfect” photos in his book “The Americans.” During his time, it was only acceptable to have sharp, in focus images with no grain or blur.

3. Contradict Yourself to innovate

Photographer and filmmaker, Jerry Schatzberg, tells a story of when he took a course with Brodovitch:

“He taught me something that I’ve always remembered: After we did the initial assignment, he contradicted what he said the first week, and I said, ‘Okay’. The next week, he contradicted what he said the second week. We went through 10 weeks of contradicting and I thought maybe he was drunk. At the end, he said, ‘You may think I’ve contradicted myself, but there’s no one way to do anything.’”

Lesson: you gottta contradict yourself to innovate. You gotta realize that photography, design, and art is constantly in FLUX. There will never be one true way to do something.

To innovate, you got to destroy the past, to pave new roads.

4. The design lab

Alexey Brodovitch taught a course called the “Design Laboratory”. Here is what the course description read:

The aim of the course is to help the student to discover his individuality, crystallize his taste, and develop his feeling for the contemporary trend by stimulating his sense of invention and perfecting his technical ability.

Therefore, realize as a photographer and artist you got to discover your own individuality. You need to crystallize and distill your own taste. You need to perfect your technical settings, and constantly explore new methods.

Furthermore, he encouraged experimentation, like a crazy science lab:

The course is conducted as an experimental laboratory, inspired by the ever-changing tempo of life, discovery of new techniques, new fields of operation…in close contact with current problems of leading magazines, department stores, advertising agencies and manufactures. Subjects include design, layout, type, poster, reportage, illustration, magazine make-up, package and product design, display, styling, art directing.

The reason this inspires me, it shows that all of photography, design, art, layout…are all inter connected. You cannot separate them. To integrate all these forms of art and design is to become a more holistic, and full artist.

The course was organized as follows:

The lab was split into two sections per week, one for design and one for photography. The workshops were immensely popular, and it was not unusual for more than sixty people to show up to his class on the first night. Among the photographers who attended his classes were Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, David Attie, Richard Avedon, Harvey Lloyd, Hiro, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand and Tony Ray-Jones.

Alexey Brodovitch taught Diane Arbus, Eve Arnold, Richard Avedon, Lisette Model, Garry Winogrand, and Tony Ray-Jones…who are all titans who have influenced contemporary photography on a massive scale.

Probably the biggest influence was on Irving Penn, one of the greatest portrait photographers in history.

Even read this insightful conversation: Avedon and Penn PDF

Also to note, Alexey commissioned photographers such as Henri Cartier-Bresson, Martin Munkacsi, and Man Ray in unique and experimental locations to make experimental photos.

5. Students on Brodovitch

Make photos and images to astonish your viewer:

“Brodovitch said “astonish me” many times, and he said we must enter the future and constantly change the old and seek the new. My own BREAKING THE LIGHT images reinvent the art of photography for the digital age, just as he urged all his students and all who worked with him to do. He despised imitation of the past and said long ago that we must be like the Russian Astronaut Gagarin and rocked into the future with daring and passion. He was a giant ahead of his time and he planted seeds of creativity that like the dragon seeds sprung up fully armored, and ready to astonish him.” [ Harvey Lloyd. Post abstract expressionist photographer and artist]

Hate mediocrity:

“He taught me to be intolerant of mediocrity. He taught me to worship the unknown.” – Art Kane, fashion and music photographer

Don’t just keep making the same photos:

“I learned from him that if, when you look in your camera, you see an image you have ever seen before, don’t click the shutter.” – Hiro, fashion photographer

6. Rhythm and design

Frances MacFadden, Bazaar’s managing editor said this is how Alexey worked:

“It was a pleasure to watch him work. He was so swift and sure. In emergencies, like the time the Clipper bearing the report of the Paris Collections was held up in Bermuda, his speed was dazzling. A quick splash or two on the cutting board, a minute’s juggling of the photostats, a slather of art gum, and the sixteen pages were complete. His layouts, of course, were the despair of copywriters whose cherished tone poems on girdles or minks had to be sacrificed to his sacred white space. Just before we went to press, all the layouts were laid out in sequence on Carmel Snow’s floor, and there, under his eye, re-arranged until the rhythm of the magazine suited him.”

Lesson: follow rhythym like music, when designing.


Study more the history of photography and the masters of photography to understand the influence of the past on modern and contemporary design and photography.


My favorite designs and layouts by Alexey Brodovitch: