Model Twiggy in 1967.

Model Twiggy in 1967. Photo: Richard Avedon

When the fashion model Dovima struck a pose in a long black Dior dress flanked by three circus elephants in 1955, she couldn't have known that she was making history.

Aside from the fact that Dovima - real name Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba - was frankly terrified of the massive beasts, the man behind the camera, Richard Avedon, was doing something revolutionary.

Instead of shooting models in studio, the 32-year-old had developed the practice of taking them outside, and photographing them in streets, cafes, doorways and casinos. Placing the long-limbed Dovima, encased in Dior, in front of the huge, lumbering beasts, Avedon was setting what would become a standard for innovative fashion photography.

Truman Capote, writer,
New York City, 1955.

Truman Capote, writer, New York City, 1955.

And the image itself, one of the most famous fashion photographs of the 20th century, is particularly arresting - surreal and beautifully lit, with all the juxtapositions that would ensure it remained in the public's consciousness.

That famous image, and many more examples of Avedon's work, is now on display at the National Portrait Gallery, the first such show to be held in Australia. Avedon, who died in 2004 aged 81, created thousands of portraits throughout his long career, of well-known artists, actors, writers and political figures, as well as nameless individuals from all walks of life.

He was attracted, above all, by the individual character of the faces he saw, and sought to capture their uniqueness. Exhibition curator Chris Chapman says the show, of 80 original prints on loan from the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York, is multifaceted and spans many decades, but all demonstrate Avedon's preoccupation with the individual and the relationship he had with his subject.

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, poets, New York, 1963.

Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky, poets, New York, 1963.

''We've called the exhibition Richard Avedon: People, because whether he's photographing Marilyn Monroe, or Dorothy Day of the Catholic Worker Mission, or a monk in Vietnam on the Mekong Delta, or a teenager in Western America, we're all the same, what we all share is our experience of our lives,'' he says.

Avedon was born in New York in 1923, began taking photos while in high school, and by the time he captured Dovima with the elephants, he had been a professional photographer for 10 years, and had long been taking models out of the studio. He became chief photographer for Harper's Bazaar in the 1940s, and later joined Diana Vreeland at Vogue in the 1960s.

Chapman says that although he was known as a fashion photographer, Avedon was also fascinated by portrait photography, and created portraits of people from all levels of society in America.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller in 1957.

Marilyn Monroe and Arthur Miller in 1957. Photo: Richard Avedon

The exhibition contains a suite of street photographs he took in the late 1940s which, although commissioned for Life Magazine, were not published until the 1990s, and haven't been seen widely.

''He also photographed many people who we do recognise, so there's Truman Capote, who was a friend of his, and beautiful Marilyn Monroe of course,'' Chapman says. ''One of the things that Avedon was able to do was to reveal something very surprising about his sitter. So here's Marilyn after a night of being Marilyn, at the end of the night when a much more vulnerable self emerges.''

He also loved the theatre, and was drawn to people who revelled in individual self-expression.

''I like to think that his work is very concerned with what we might now refer to as human rights, but I think in his time, the second half of the 20th century, is more about freedom of expression, really,'' he says.

''So he can photograph the poets Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg, two men embracing, and this became an iconic image for the gay liberation movement. Or Malcolm X, and many other figures from the civil rights movement.''

One of Chapman's personal favourites shows a man outside a skating rink at a civil rights demonstration in Atlanta, Georgia, holding a sign that says, ''Put down the hate and let's skate''.

There's also an image of 16-year-old Lou Alcindor, the basketball player who would later change his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, as well as a young Twiggy, posing in a shimmering dress. All of the images are original silver gelatin prints produced by Avedon himself, many showing subtle tones and a level of detail that do not come through in reproductions.

Aside from placing models outside, and street photography, Avedon also influenced a style of portraiture that is almost taken for granted nowadays.

''From the late '60s onwards, he really developed his iconic style, which people will also recognise without maybe knowing the name, of photographing his sitters in black and white against a plain white backdrop,'' Chapman says.

''This style, [where] all the other information about them is taken away so you've really got to relate to them on a direct level, has become enormously influential around the world and, again, it's Avedon who created it.''

He says overall, Avedon's photographs are political, and capture moments that are both culturally powerful - a woman in Times Square holding a newspaper bearing the headline ''President Shot Dead'', for example - and emotionally arresting.

''It is quite extraordinary the power of the person that comes through the photograph, and that's really interesting because there's a sense of psychological space. They've got life in them, and I think that that's a result of Avedon's skill and also the brilliance of their technique.''

Richard Avedon: People is showing at the National Portrait Gallery until November 24, before heading to Melbourne and Perth.