Among the 20th century's most famous portrait photographers, the late Richard Avedon made some of its starkest pictures. One detractor called them grotesque, but that doesn't ring true. Diane Arbus, his equally famous contemporary and friend, emphasized that dimension of humanity; she made ordinary people look more freakish than the carnival types she also pictured. Avedon sought something different in his pictures. His subjects, by contrast, have a melancholy feel to them, even the smiling ones.
The title of the sprawling and fascinating exhibition of his work on view at the San Diego Museum of Art, “Portraits of Power,” hints at a desire to capture the social reality of his times. And there's no doubt Avedon was drawn to people who shaped American society politically, intellectually and culturally.
San Diego is one of two venues for this major exhibition, which debuted at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C. It's accompanied by a weighty, handsome book, with informative writing by the show's curator, Paul Roth.
Some of Avedon's early portraits, the often-published portrait of a grimacing Ezra Pound (in 1958) or one of novelist Carson McCullers, author of “The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter,” (also from 1958) convey an aura of the tragic. Though his later pictures are usually less expressionistic and theatrical, his attraction to the ravaged face surfaces now and again. A searing later example is “George Wallace, Former Governor of Alabama, With His Valet, Jimmy Dallas, Montgomery, Alabama, July 31, 1993.”
The array of people Avedon photographed was vast: presidents, senators, singers, songwriters, actors, philosophers, generals, and on and on. He was drawn to people who made history and his own fame, along with the high-profile magazines that commissioned his work, gave Avedon access to many of the influential and the powerful.
But as the show reveals, Avedon interpreted power in a very broad way. Some of the people who interested him were part of history but didn't possess power themselves: an American infantryman in Vietnam, Vietnamese street kids and everyday participants in the civil rights movement.
Stylistically, he portrayed most people similarly, with his trademark white background and black borders. Notable exceptions, among the pictures in this show, are a portrait of the great poet W.H. Auden on a snowy New York Street in 1960 and Bob Dylan in Central Park in February 1965, a few months before the release of “Highway 61 Revisited.”
There is no tell-tale sign that Avedon took a different attitude toward a soldier than he did toward a president. With a couple of early exceptions – Jacqueline Kennedy as first lady was one – he never idealized people. The seemingly neutrality of his pictures was really an assertion of style, a way of stripping away social trappings.
Avedon thought a lot about process of creating a portrait.
He once said, “A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he's being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he's wearing or how he looks.”
In another interview, he said of his subjects, “They present the image they choose. I do the editing.”
If so, he was probably the shrewdest, keenest editor around.
In nearly all of the 150-plus portraits on view, you feel as if he has done a good deal more than edit. He has teased out something essential about an individual subject, be it in the confident, willful hands-on-hip pose of Barbara Jordan, then the first African-American congresswoman to serve from a Southern state, or in the intensely purposeful gaze of then presidential candidate Ronald Reagan. Both of these portraits are from 1976, part of a famous project about the politically powerful, commissioned by Rolling Stone and titled “The Family.”
The general sweep of Avedon's career as a portrait photographer is easy to follow in this exhibition, though its theme tilts the emphasis on his political pictures more than his cultural pictures.
He had an equally high profile career as a fashion photographer. Beginning in 1944, at age 21, he started taking pictures for Harper's Bazaar and a year later became a staff photographer, a position he held for 20 years – working with such legendary editors as Diana Vreeland, Alexey Brodovitch and Marvin Israel. Between 1947 and 1984, he shot the French collections in Paris for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. This other major dimension of his life as a photographer is featured in a concurrent exhibit, “Avedon Fashion, 1944-2000,” at the International Center of Photography in New York.
One way to look at Avedon's career is to see his fashion work as a way of practicing his craft at a high level, while his portraits, the subject of museum and gallery exhibitions in his lifetime, combined journalism and art.
Avedon said that he didn't believe a portrait could capture the truth about someone. He sometimes called what he did fiction; on another occasion, in connection with “The Family” project, he labelled his portrait projects “relative journalism.” He believed in chronicling his times through photographing people, but it was a saga controlled by an artistic vision.
“When I choose to photograph someone for my own reasons – subjective reasons – I'm enormously manipulative,” he observed. “And I will do any number of things to draw out of them the quality that I think I'm looking for.”
However he arrived at the final images, they are magnetic. Perhaps it's because we feel as if he's arrived at something essential about that person, through expression, a pose, clothing and whatever else someone chooses to bring into the picture frame.
William Buckley Jr. holds a script for his television show “Firing Line” in a 1975 portrait; Donald Rumsfeld, then secretary of defense under Gerald Ford, has a briefcase under one arm, as if he just stopped momentarily for Avedon's camera on the way to an appointment. In a subtle way, both men's faces, props and body language suggest they are driven individuals – which is true to their biographies.
In his minimalist approach to the portrait, Avedon's photographs were quintessentially modern. Their starkness seemed in tune with both the stripped-down notion of theater associated with Samuel Beckett's plays and with minimalist art in painting and sculpture.
Also palpable is the influence of the mug shot and the lineup photo. He used this device to good effect in 1968, to pose the then-notorious “Chicago Seven: Lee Weiner, John Froines, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, Dave Dellinger, Chicago, Illinois, November 5, 1969.”
They were on trial for conspiracy and inciting others to riot outside the Democratic National Convention and the picture was made on the day that eight became seven – when Bobby Seale, co-founder of the Black Panther party, was shackled and isolated from the group. The defendants look understandably tense and some of them appear haggard at the end of a day in court.
Avedon employed this conceit again several times in pictures taken in Vietnam, including one picturing “The Mission Council” in Saigon on April 28, 1971 – the group of men responsible for running the war campaign there.
He clearly had a keen interest in those at the core of political and cultural tumult during the 1960s. He depicted not only those who represented the political dimension of the counterculture, like the Chicago Seven, but counterculture icons in the arts, such as poet Allen Ginsberg. Avedon posed him, in 1963, with poet Peter Orlovsky, who was also his partner.
Pictures from the 1960s and 1970s form the core of the exhibition. In a sense, the key series from the 1990s in this show looks back to the 1960s, with its portraits of political figures from the Kennedy administration and that era, like Dean Rusk, then secretary of state, and J. William Fulbright, a former senator from Arkansas who served as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. There is a wistful atmosphere to this series, with its underlying theme of unfulfilled promise and idealism.
This interest in the workings of democracy and faces that represent its sources of power endured. In 2004, he worked on assignment for The New Yorker, photographing delegates from both major parties at their conventions. And in the fall of that year, he was still photographing political figures from both parties, like James Carville, the Democratic party strategist, and Karl Rove, the adviser to President George W. Bush.
One of those he pictured at the Democratic National Convention was its keynote speaker, then in the Illinois State Senate. This head-and-shoulders shot of Barack Obama is the last picture in the show, which makes the exhibition feel somehow open-ended, even though Avedon died on assignment for the magazine on Oct. 1, 2004. That mood seems fitting for a photographer who seemed intent on capturing those who helped to define their time, even as he photographed them in a way that seems to transcend connections to their moment.
Text and images by signosandiego.com