Photographer's evocative works offer insight into his subjects, himself
The Arizona Republic
Jan. 6, 2008 12:00 AM
"Hello, this is Dick Avedon."
It was 1994, and The Arizona Republic had just run my review of the huge Richard Avedon retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum.
The photographer called to tell me he had read the review and appreciated it. advertisement
"Not all the New York critics were so kind," he said.
He said he was going to be in Phoenix to photograph boxer Oscar de la Hoya for the New Yorker and suggested we meet for lunch.
"Let's avoid any place too fancy," he said. "Find some small place you like."
By the end of his life Avedon had become the most famous photographer in the world, as much a celebrity as those he photographed: naked Nastassja Kinsky with a boa constrictor tickling her ear with its tongue; Marilyn Monroe hugging her new playwright husband, Arthur Miller; the Beatles in psychedelic color. He died in 2004.
A new show opens Saturday at the Phoenix Art Museum showing some of Avedon's range, from the early groundbreaking fashion pictures to the later insect-on-a-pin portraits of actors, politicians and artists.
He was 70 when we lunched at Eliana's in central Phoenix, eating papusas and drinking horchata. You would never have known it. Under his full shock of hair, his small frame - he was 5-foot-7 and almost birdlike - his eyes were stoked with an impatient alertness, taking in everything like a starving man eating oysters. There was nothing relaxed, nothing tired about him: He was preternaturally curious and alert - the mental energy of a man a fraction of his age.
"It stuns me to see all those laughing women running down the streets of Paris," he said. "I don't remember the man who took those pictures."
'Bit of adventure'
When he was just 23, Avedon began taking photographs for Harper's Bazaar magazine and turned fashion photography on its ear.
"For the first time, you saw fashion photography taken into the streets," says Dennita Sewell, curator of fashion design at the Phoenix Art Museum, whose collection includes several of the gowns Avedon photographed in his first work.
"Before that, women posed properly in front of a chandelier in a beautiful hotel, or in a studio with perfect hair, but Avedon gave the pictures a bit of adventure.
"He captured this excitement, that if only you were in Paris, if only you were in that suit, if only you ran across these scenes, fabulous things would happen to you, too."
Suzy Parker, Dovima and other models leaped over the sidewalks in the Marais district or stood in evening gown in front of elephants. It was all new, all energy, all somewhat outrageous.
"Mixing that beautiful satin with the wrinkled skin of the elephants was so striking, so unusual for the time," Sewell says.
But it was more than just the "story" he was telling - model Elise Daniels with Paris street performers, wearing a suit by Balenciaga, or Sunny Harnett in an evening dress by Grés, in the casino spinning the roulette wheel - Avedon had a special rapport with his models.
"With all that movement and energy, he didn't put his women on a pedestal," says Norma Stevens, executive director of the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York. "You can see the fashion photographs as portraits. The women are human beings, not just clothes-hangers."
Others began imitating Avedon, but the photographer himself just moved on.
"I'm not that interested in jumping women anymore," he said in 1994.
What he moved on to was portraiture. Nearly every important figure from the 1960s through the turn of the millennium had a portrait done by Avedon. Sometimes you wonder why.
In the foreword to his landmark book, Portraits, from 1976, critic Harold Rosenberg wrote, "Avedon's camera refuses to confer poetry or distinction on his painters, writers and other famous personages. It meets each individual head-on; he is allowed only such graces as may come through the vacant stare of the lens."
Most of those portraits show subjects with a pitiless objectivity, refusing to flatter, refusing to prettify. Sitting for an Avedon portrait was something like choosing to be interviewed by Mike Wallace. You knew going in it would reveal things you might not want in circulation.
So, you have Marilyn Monroe looking lost, George Wallace eyeing the lens with suspicion, physicist Robert Oppenheimer looking guilty and penitent.
"What's wonderful about all of them is that they are evocations of the person just by showing the person straight out," says Tom Loughman, Phoenix Art Museum curator. "That's a break from the great portrait photographers from the recent past. Diane Arbus tried to give you more - clues into the person's social standing or chosen profession. You think of the Renaissance portraitist showing himself as a painter, or a Baroque sovereign with all the trappings of their position. But Avedon cuts to the quick, gets the person straight up."
Phoenix photographer Craig Smith uses a large-format camera, like Avedon did, to make the sort of formal, presentational images.
"That kind of simplicity and the directness of those photographs reflect what the medium does best: make the ordinary look strange," Smith says.
Avedon put it this way: "I knew from the beginning that being a photographer and playing with light means playing with fire. Neither the photographer nor the subject gets out unsinged."
Not that Avedon was just capturing candid moments. The pictures are the carefully stage-managed result of the photographer's persistence in getting past the mask presented to the world.
As Picasso once said, "Art is the lie that tells the truth."
For the 1957 portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, he faced the problem of the royal facade, the carefully crafted public personae that most celebrities work so hard to maintain.
Avedon lied to them: He said his dog had just been run over by a cab. The royals momentarily dropped their public selves to sympathize and he snapped the picture, catching a moment of truth instead of the rehearsed pose.
"They loved dogs more than they loved Jews," Avedon, a Jew, said during lunch with a hint of malevolent relish.
"What I was looking for was a confrontation between the image and the viewer. I think a photograph is an opinion."
Avedon favored a blank white background that neutralized the portrait's context, and a flat, steady light that didn't romanticize a face.
"Strip away that context, use the white backdrop and you are forced to engage with the person, face, posture, angle of head, the way they place their hand," says Rebecca Senf, photography curator at the Phoenix Art Museum and the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, where the show was created.
"Some portrait photographers are trying to essentialize their subjects in a single photograph, like Yousuf Karsh, getting the epitome of that person. Karsh's portrait comes to represent everything about that person."
You think of Karsh's bulldog Winston Churchill, that's all you ever need to know of Churchill, or Karsh's cellist Pablo Casals, seen from the back playing his instrument in a hush of introspection. These pictures sum up a life.
"Avedon is 180 degrees different," Senf says. "He wants to capture his subject in a tiny moment of their life, but a true moment. To get beyond how these people present themselves to the world, so that it is a privilege for us to be there for that moment."
The photographer simply wasn't interested in the conventional celebrity portrait.
"I would be happy with the word disturbing as with the word beautiful," he told me. "And most happy if the response to the work is one of recognition - finding your own predicament in someone else."
This is the essence of Avedon as an artist, and it shows most clearly in the non-celebrity work he has made, like the series of pictures that became In the American West, with its drifters, mine workers and ranchers. He saw ordinary people with the same attentiveness he spent on movie stars and rock musicians.
"Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me," he wrote in an essay. "My concern is the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own."
Sitting across the table, enjoying the Salvadoran food, he said, "In a sense, I am writing my autobiography through other people's faces."
But what it really is is the moment of connection that he records, that moment when you're in conversation and really listening, paying attention the way you would if you were defusing a bomb, when you and your conversant become, in a sense, a single entity - the rest of the world drops away and all that survives is the interaction: subject and listener. It may be a fleeting moment, an inconsequential one, but it's unutterably alive, present, actual.
It is that curiosity and awareness that fueled both art and life, and made Avedon move from fashion to celebrity, to ordinary people. One of the most moving series of pictures he ever took was of his father as he grew old and died.
"The photographs are meant to be overwhelming," he said, "because death is, old age is."
Avedon died of a stroke in San Antonio, Texas, working on yet another New Yorker assignment. He was always changing, always moving to new things.
"If I had stood still, my work would have stood still," he said. "I try not to see things through my old eyes, even through last year's eyes."
"Let's stop treating models like greyhounds we plan to shoot after a race. We have to remember we are dealing with real people who have real feelings."
- James Scully
because we have to give back to the Master his work....
and maybe because some young people didn't know :
Andy Warhol and members of the Factory, 1969
you remember Steven Meisel and Calvin Klein, now....?
but I think Meisel did a good job, though... with Baron, right?
thnks for all the pictures.....
far from home...
Richard Avedon for Versace
Richard Avedon for Versace
Richard Avedon for Versace
Roberto Lopez, oil field worker, Lyons, Texas, 28 September 1980
Bjork, musician, New York, 2 June 2004
Avedon, self-portrait, Provo, Utah, 20 August 1980
Kate Moss, by Richard Avedon for Versace
Anna Magnani, actor, New York, 17 April 1953
Sylvester Stallone and Claudia Schiffer, by Richard Avedon for Versace
All photographs by Richard Avedon © 2007 The Richard Avedon Foundation
And I am nothing of a builder, but here I dreamt I was an architect
And I built this balustrade to keep you home, to keep you safe from the outside world
|avedon, photographer, richard|