Richard Avedon is
perhaps the most famous portrait photographer of the last half
century, best known for his stark black and white pictures of
This very handsome major new retrospective offers few surprises
from the photographer's well-known oeuvre, but some of the images
are so strong, especially from his later work that focused on
drifters in the American West, that it should help elevate his
The exhibition is accompanied by a $35 "fold-out" book,
published by Harry N. Abrams, that contains about 50 of the images,
which is a little disappointing since there are about 180 on view
in the exhibition. Among the many interesting ones that are not
included in the book are portraits of Abe Rosenthal, the former
executive editor of The New York Times, Ralph Nader, the
civic activist and politician, and Senator Eugene McCarthy that
were part of a group of 69 photographs of the "power elite"
that were published in 1976 in Rolling Stone magazine.
Some of the show's pictures
are enormous but many vary in size from large to very large with
extremely sharp resolution.
While some of the more effective
pictures such as those of Marian Anderson, the singer, are off-center,
most are centered and almost alll are against bright white backgrounds.
There are no color pictures.
In general, the portraits
are neither flattering nor revealing. Often somber and dead-pan,
nonetheless they are usually riveting. These are not the formal,
official-type public relations photos that we associate with Karsh
or Bachrach, but neither are they casual snapshots.
In many, one senses the grit and determination of the sitter and
a sense of exhaustion and occasionally desperation.
Avedon's photograph of Groucho Marx is not mirthful, or frivolous,
although that of Buston Keaton is.
Avedon's photograph of Oscar
Levant, the pianist and humorist well known for his neuroses,
is one of the few that is appears out of focus and depicts him
as a screaming madman.
Avedon's photograph of Marilyn Monroe is sad and is one of the
few not shot against a white background.
His pictures of writers,
on the other hand, are more pensive, especially those of Truman
Capote, shown at the top of this article, and William Burroughs,
In almost all of the pictures, there is an absence of innocence
and an abundance of weariness. Still, there a great deal of variety,
not only in format sizes, but in "personages." While
one does not take away any appreciable sense of the photographer's
"attitude," there is much interesting "humanity"
There is an anatomical nature to many of the pictures, not in
the "death mask" sense, but in the almost microscopic
One is tempted to characterize
many of the pictures as bland and uninteresting, but there is
a mysterious air about them that tempts one to revisit them.
There are certain images
that are riveting, especially among the "drifters" series
that come from his series known as "In The American West."
The exhibition also includes
some enormous mural-size group portraits of the Chicago Seven,
a group of activists on trial in 1969 for rioting at the 1968
Democratic National Convention, the Mission Council, military
and political leaders who determined policy in 1971 about the
Vietnam War, and members of Andy Warhol's Factory in 1969. In
the latter photomural, Mr. Avedon embedded a narrative by having
Joe Dallesandro move across the scene from left to right with
Warhol filming him coupling with a woman in the far right frame,
a frame that Avedon eventually cut out of the work.
Also included are a group
of photograph's of Mr. Avedon's father, Jacob Israel Avedon.
Among the many celebrities
that were photographed by Mr. Avedon are the Duke and Duchess
of Windsor, Ezra Pound, Igor Stravinsky, Marilyn Monroe, Charlie
Chaplin, Bert Lahr, Isak Dinesen, Jean Genet, Francis Bacon, Joseph
Brodsky, Samuel Beckett, Marcel Duchamp, Dorothy Parker, W. H.
Auden, Harold Bloom, Roy Lichtenstein, Vladimir Horowitz, Jean
Renoir, Willem de Kooning, John Ford and Buckminster Fuller.
Mr. Avedon's early career
in fashion photography was fictionalized in "Funny Face,"
a 1956 movie in which Fred Astaire starred as fashion photographer
According to the museum's
press release for the exhibition, "Unlike the fashion work,
however, most of Avedon's portraits did not issue from commercial
assignments but from personal convictions and were solicited by
the artist himself." "Each is a virtuoso reckoning with
human complexities and contradictions and a powerful expression
of this artist's distinctive vision," it continued, adding
that "The people in Avedon's photographs seem posed to walk
right out of their frames, immediately recognizable and wholly
alive down to the most telling detail."
"By dint of progressive
challenges to himself," wrote Maria Morris Hambourg, the
curator in change of the museum's department of photographs and
the organizer of the exhibition, "Richard Avedon not only
distilled photographic portraiture to its irreducible core, but
has also produced an extended meditation on life, death, art,
and identity. Laureate of the invisible reflected in physiognomy,
Avedon has become our poet of portraiture."
Mr. Avedon was born in 1923
in New York City and attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the
Bronx, but never completed an academic education. He became a
staff photographer for Harper's Bazaar and then Vogue
and in 1992 was named the first staff photographer of The New
In a catalogue essay, Ms.
Hambourg and Mia Freeman wrote that "When Avedon was ten
he became obsessed with the idea of photographing Sergei Rachmaninoff,
who lived in the apartment above his grandparents on Manhattan's
Riverside Drive." "After staking out the building's
lobby with his Kodak Box Brownie," they continued, "he
managed to capture the composer standing next to a fire hydrant
on West End Avenue. 'I wanted him to see me, to recognize me somehow,'
Avedon told a French journalist years later. 'I wanted him to
give me something of himself I could keep, something private and
permanent that would connect me to him.' The picture, now lost,
of this heroic figure in the Russian Jewish firmament of New York
was the first in Avedon's private pantheon. Autograph collecting,
a long-lived and passionate hobby springing from the same desire,
led the teenaged Avedon to gather an idiosyncratic constellation
of stars. His album, studded with the signatures of writers, vaudeville
comedians, classical musicians, and puppeteers, had a special
section devoted to 'Great Jews and Great Judges.' Also lost, it
was a concerted attempt to make a 'collection of like-minded people,'
a first stab at an idea that in some sense has remained with him
for life as he seeks out subjects for his camera. The young Avedon
wanted very badly to be a poet....he was elected Poet Laureate
of the New York City high schools....Upon leaving high school,
Avedon studied briefly poetic composition and philosophy at Columbia
University....Photography offered his roiling emotions a quicker,
more conclusive resolution than the patient sifting, gathering,
and fitting of words and, even more importantly, 'it also appeared
not to be about me.'...A neighbor with whom he had practiced photography
became a mate in the photographic division of the Merchant Marine
and, grateful for this alternative to the draft, Avedon likewise
joined up. As a photographer's mate second class, he made mug
shots for military ID cards....Following his release in 1944,
he put together a portfolio of pictures and, after a dozen attempts,
badgered Alexey Brodovitch, the famous Russian designer and art
director of Harper's Bazaar, into looking at it. Accepted
into Brodovitch's classes inp photography and design at the New
School for Social Research, the twenty-three year old was soon
undertaking his first assignments at the magazine. Energetic,
aquiver with new ideas, and willing to try anything, he covered
the French couture collections in 1947; the pictures he made in
Paris that first year fairly revolutionized fashion photography
and launched a brilliant career....
"Up until the late
Sixties, Avedon had been using a small, square-format Rolleiflex
for nearly all of his fashion and portrait work. This camera,
which he held at waist level, peering down into the viewfinder,
was a mobile and tractable tool that eventually came to feel like
an extension of his own body. Energetic and lithe, he practically
danced with the camera, electrifying the atmosphere of the studio....'The
camera was almost taking the pictures itself,' he explained recently.
'Hovering over the camera and peering into it, I never saw the
people who were there, or saw them seeing me, and portraiture
is about that authentic connection.' In 1969 Avedon began using
an eight-by-ten-inch Deardorff view camera on a tripod - a cumbersome
and demanding piece of equipment that brought with it a new way
of working and a new set of constraints....No longer a mobile
extension of the eye, the camera became a silent witness to the
concentrated face-off between photographer and subject....
"Born of the nineteenth-century
fascination with physiognomy and criminal classification, the
mug shot is the purest - and most purely photographic - form of
portraiture. A standard mug shot, with its blunt frontality, uniform
lighting, and set proportion of head to frame, strips away all
extraneous elements, establishing a stringent formal neutrality
that presents the unique configuration of the subject's face as
its primary content. Now Avedon adapted the rigorous, stripped-down
purity of this format, pushing to its farthest limit....Because
of the tight framing and Avedon's commitment to using the entire,
uncropped sheet - black borders and all - the subject cannot shift
or slump and must remain attentive and fined attuned to the discipline
of the process. There are no props; there is nothing to lean on
or hide behind. 'I've worked out of a series of no's,' Avedon
explains. 'No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions,
no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no's
force me to the 'yes.'"
In the essay, Avedon is
quoted as recounting his meeting with writer Isak Dinesen at a
hotel in Copenhagen: "'She arriving wearing an enormous wolfskin
coat and her first words to me were, 'I judge people by what they
think of King Lear.' I was completely intimidated.'"
In a catalogue essay entitled "Borrowed
Dogs," which was adapted from a talk given by Mr. Avedon
at the Museum of Modern Art in New York on September 27, 1986,
the photographer wrote that his family had taken great care with
its snapshots: "We really planned them. We made compositions.
We dressed up. We posed in front of expensive cars, homes that
weren't hours. We borrowed dogs....All of the photographs in our
family album were built on some kind of lie about who we were,
and revealed a truth about who we wanted to be.....The surface
is all you've got....There's an element of sexuality in all portraiture;
the moment you stop to look, you've been picked up. And you may
look at a portrait with a concentration you're not allowed in
life....Photography is a sad art. It's gone but it remains."
This very popular exhibition reveals a highly
stylized form of portraiture that is sad and jaded and uneven.
Some of the "drifter" portraits are mesmerizing and
almost demonic, but most are unflattering and unsympathetic of
their subjects except in their slickness and largeness of their
presentation. The curators have, in their catalogue essay, emphasized
that Avedon has been a kindred spirit to the modern minimalism
in the arts of the period covered in which representation is often
less important than presentation.
Avedon's fashion photography was cool, elegant,
surprising. His portraits, on the other hand, are generally rather
depressing and perverse and empty of resonance despite the "substance"
of the subjects.
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