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Richard Avedon

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

September 26, 2002 to Jan 5, 2003

Mug Shots

Truman Capote by Richard Avedon

Truman Capote by Richard Avedon, 41 38 by 33 1/4 inches, 1974, Collection of The Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Carter B. Horsley

Richard Avedon is perhaps the most famous portrait photographer of the last half century, best known for his stark black and white pictures of celebrities.

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 status.

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.

Marian Anderson by Richard Avedon

Marian Anderson by Richard Avedon, 38 by 42 inches, 1955, Collection of the artist

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.

William Burroughs by Richard Avedon

William S. Burroughs by Richard Avedon, 41 1/2 by 33 1/4 inches, 1975, Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art

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, shown above.

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" on view.

There is an anatomical nature to many of the pictures, not in the "death mask" sense, but in the almost microscopic details.

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.

Drifter by Avedon Different pose by drifter

Two poses by James Kimberlin, drifter, by Richard Avedon, 1980, collection of the artist

There are certain images that are riveting, especially among the "drifters" series that come from his series known as "In The American West."

Charlene van Tighem by Richard Avedon

Charlene van Tighem, physical therapist, Augusta, Montas, by Richard Avedon, 77 7/8 by 63 7/8 inches, 1983

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 Dick Avery.

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 Yorker.

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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