Richard Avedon: Deconstructing the Personality to Burnish the Legend

Richard Avedon: Deconstructing the Personality to Burnish the Legend

Portraits to Confirm and Confer Identity

For more than fifty years, Richard Avedon’s portraits filled the pages of the country’s finest magazines. His stark imagery and brilliant insight into his subjects’ characters made him one of the premier American portrait photographers. Born in New York City in 1923, Richard Avedon dropped out of high school and joined the Merchant Marine’s photographic section. Upon his return in 1944, he found a job as a photographer in a department store. Within two years he had been “found” by an art director at Harper’s Bazaar and was producing work for them as well as Vogue, Look, and a number of other magazines.

During the early years, Avedon made his living primarily through work in advertising. His real passion, however, was the portrait and its ability to express the essence of its subject. As Avedon’s notoriety grew, so did the opportunities to photograph celebrities from a broad range of disciplines. Avedon’s ability to present personal views of public figures, who were usually distant and inaccessible, was immediately recognized by the public and the celebrities themselves.

Many sought out Avedon for their most public images. While many photographers are interested in either catching a moment in time or preparing a formal image, Avedon found a way to do both. In 1994, the Whitney Museum brought together fifty years of his work in the retrospective, Richard Avedon: Evidence. In 1989, Avedon received an honorary doctorate from the Royal College of Art in London.

Avedon’s Studio: A Dramatic Arena

Avedon’s studio was in a converted stable-house on New York’s East 75th Street. Once entering the house, you walked into a lobby whose brick walls were lined with Avedon’s legendary images of Marilyn Monroe and a large print of the model Dovima in a black-and-white Dior evening gown, her long arms stretched between the long trunk of one elephant and the floppy ear of another. You continued past a kitchen galley, down a few steps to a dressing room, and then down a few more steps, past a small room with desks and a light box, through a doorway, and finally into a white space that was repainted for every sitting.

This white space was like a stage, lit by a simple key light, with stretched white cloth behind it. The shift from the reception commotion to the studio quiet, from the real world to a play one, was abrupt and dramatic. Avedon referred to it as his set; in fact it was an arena that put anyone who stepped into it immediately on show. The white floor separated the subject from the unpainted rest of the cavernous space, as well as from the workers who occupied it (Avedon and his three assistants). The arrangement inspired a drama on both sides of the camera: between acting and being seen.

The encounter, like the setting, raised the stakes of play. The game was hide-and-seek, and it was exhilarating and scary. What would Avedon see? Or see through? For each subject, the arrangement created a kind of immanence, a palpable internal demand; the subject had to do something, to be someone. The negotiation of identity was a simulacrum of life. Here in the studio, the subject was called on to improvise; whether professional showman or novice, they had either to mask or to pronounce themselves. From Avedon’s perspective, all choices were telling. His task was to encourage, interpret, re-stage and retouch the portraits in order to confirm and confer identity.

The desire to be properly seen was one of the reasons that, for decades, the performing legends of the Western world paraded through Avedon’s studio door. Many of them could understand their own talent, but they couldn’t grasp what it was in them that attracted the public so powerfully. “They don’t always know what they’re showing,” Avedon once said. “I never quite understood it, this sex symbol,” Monroe said of herself. In his portraits of her, Avedon captured that sense of confusion about her charisma, which she was able to control in front of a camera, but which she imperfectly understood.

Whether Avedon was mourning his father in a series of harrowing death-bed portraits, capturing dramatic portraits of renowned celebrities or exploring the burned-out faces of Utah drifters, within the camera’s vigilant focus the position of a head, a hand, or a lidded eye assumed the significance of a symbol. These studies have a dark glamor. The glamor of Avedon’s portraits, the arrangement of balance of line, texture, figure, and shadows within the frame, speaks with an uncanny, heartbreaking eloquence.

Richard Avedon: The Photography of Minimal Essentialism

Richard Avedon: Portraits of Crisis and Power

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“Wardrobe Malfunction” Fine Stripped: Timberlake Sings About It

“Wardrobe Malfunction” Fine Reversed: Timberlake Sings About It

Last night on ESPYs, Justin Timberlake performed a song about the legendary “wardrobe malfunction” during the 2004 Super Bowl. Coincidentally, this morning the Third Circuit Court overturned the $550,000 fine that CBS had paid to the FCC for the incident, ruling that the network could not be held accountable for the actions of “independent contractors” (Timberlake and Janet Jackson).

However, the court added, that if the FCC wanted to fine ESPN for Timberlake’s lame song, that would be okay!!

“Wardrobe Malfunction” Fine Reversed: Timberlake Sings About It

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The Dark Night’s Ghastly Joker: Heath Ledger Touted for an Oscar

The Dark Knight’s Ghastly Joker: Heath Ledger Touted for an Oscar

Handsome is as handsome doesn’t in The Dark Knight. Of the three male actors who dominate the movie, it’s Heath Ledger with his face hidden behind twisted clown makeup, whose perfect features are never seen, who has proven to be the most memorable. Heath Ledger’s portrayal of the Joker in The Dark Knight is both a demonic creation and three-ring circus of one. Ledger died in January at the age of 28 from an accidental overdose, after the principal photography of the film had concluded. His death could have cast a paralyzing pall over the movie if his performance were not so alive. Ledger’s Joker is a creature of such ghastly life, and his performance is so visceral, creepy and insistently present that the portrayal pulls you in almost at once.

Ledger’s performance is so intense and lasting in part because, despite his insane mask, it’s a subtle and nuanced performance that is so powerful it almost erases all memories of the handsome Australian actor behind the Joker’s mask. The makeup seems to have liberated Ledger. Ledger’s body movements are flexibly agile, he’s expressive with only his eyes and his voice has oscillating surges of irony, mockery and psychopathology. Ledger’s performance as the Joker in The Dark Knight is an essay, in a way that he’s never shown before when playing straight-faced characters, in pure magnetic charisma.

While Hollywood’s Academy Awards are still more than six months away, the late Heath Ledger already is being touted for a supporting actor nomination for his terrifying performance in The Dark Knight. Ledger’s performance is so mesmerizing and daring as Batman’s clown-faced arch enemy that it’s possible he might become the first performer since Peter Finch (in the 1976 Network) to receive a posthumous Oscar.

The Dark Knight (Official Movie Trailer)

You can read more about what I’ve written earlier about Heath Ledger here and here.

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Take Me Out to the Ball Game: Historic Cooperstown

Take Me Out to the Ball Game: Historic Cooperstown

Cooperstown was founded in the late 1786 by William Cooper, a judge and member of Congress. His mansion, which burnt down many years ago, stood next to what is now the Baseball Hall of Fame. Several of the stone houses that William Cooper built are still standing in the village.

The son of William Cooper, James Fenimore Cooper, became one of the best-loved novelists in the United States with his Glimmerglass tales, including his most noted work, The Last of the Mohicans.

The Village of Cooperstown was incorporated in 1812. At that time the village had 133 houses, 57 barns and 686 residents. The National Baseball Hall of Fame was established in the quaint New York hamlet of Cooperstown in 1939. The museum cemented the town’s place in American historic lore, which had begun over one hundred and fifty years earlier.

Vintage Photographs of Historic Cooperstown

Classic Film Clips of Babe Ruth

National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

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Ms. Olive Riley: The World’s Oldest Blogger Dies at 108

Audio: BBC Interview with Mike Rubbo, Olive Riley’s Assistant

Ms Olive Riley: The World’s Oldest Blogger Dies at 108

Ms. Olive Riley died over the weekend in a nursing home on the central coast of New South Wales, Australia, at the age of 108. Born in Broken Hill in 1899, Ms. Olive returned in 2004 for a filming of the documentary about her life, All About Olive.

Since early last year, she had written about 70 entries on her life experiences and posted them on her blog, All About Riley. Ms. Olive’s blog had a large following of readers from all over the world. In her final post, dated June 26th, an increasingly frail Olive noted that she couldn’t “shake off that bad cough.” She also wrote, “I read a whole swag of email messages and comments from my internet friends today, and I was so pleased to hear from you. Thank you, one and all.”

What follows is an earlier posting, which I wrote upon the occasion of celebrations for Ms. Olive’s 108th birthday:

Miss Olive Riley Makes a Toast!

Miss Olive, will be turning 108 in two days. Over at Miss Olive’s blog, The Life of Riley, they’ve already started the celebration. The home where Olive lives insists that they can hold birthday celebrations only on weekdays. But heck, she’s already live 3,9417 days, so what’s another two, right?

Born in 1899 in Broken Hill, Australia (just outside of Sydney), Miss Olive started her blog, what she calls a “blob,”in February of this year. The entries consist largely of Riley’s transcriptions to her friend Mike, where she talks about her day to day events and also tells stories from her 108 years of life.

The Documentary: All About Olive

Miss Olive’s Birthday Party

ABC News: Miss Olive’s Birthday Party

You can read a much earlier article about Ms. Olive here.

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Remembering 28 Days: Rediscovering the Intimacy of Love

Remembering 28 Days: Rediscovering the Intimacy of Love

28 Days is the story of a successful New York City writer who is living in the fast lane and is everyone’s favorite party girl. She shares her roller-coaster social lifestyle, hopping back and forth from dance clubs to bars and the morning after hangovers, with her boyfriend. He is handsome and magnetic, but equally attracted to life on the wild side. Life is nothing but a perpetual game of debauchery, until she gets drunk with her boyfriend on the day of her sister’s wedding, commandeers her sister’s wedding limousine and ends up with a 28-day stay in a substance abuse rehabilitation center.

A young urban woman who is cynical to the core, she is determined not to conform. But her experiences within the highly structured rehab setting begin to break through her carefully constructed defenses and lead her to start taking a closer look at who she might really be. Ultimately, she gradually starts to lose her deeply jaded sense of pessimism about life and begins to rediscover the possibility of having intimately loving relationships with others.

28 Days: Rediscovering the Intimacy of Love

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Jesse Jackson Slams Obama with Unbelievably Crude Comment

Jesse Jackson Slams Obama with Unbelievably Crude Comments

While on a break during a taping for a Fox News program, Jesse Jackson told another guest on the program that he wanted to “cut [Obama's] nu**s out.” The hurtful and disparaging comments were caught on tape, because Jackson’s microphone was still on.

Of course, the two-faced Jackson immediately issued an apology, stating: “For any harm or hurt that this hot mic private conversation may have caused, I apologize. My support for Senator Obama’s campaign is wide, deep and unequivocal. I cherish this redemptive and historical moment.”

Congressman Jesse Jackson, Jr., expressed personal wrath about his father’s crude comments: “I’m deeply outraged and disappointed in Reverend Jackson’s reckless statements about Senator Barack Obama. His divisive and demeaning comments about the presumptive Democratic nominee — and I believe the next president of the United States — contradict his inspiring and courageous career,” wrote Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr. (D-Ill.), an Obama campaign co-chairman, in a statement that he sent out after word began spreading that his father had said something so crude and deeply offensive.

Instead of tearing others down, Barack Obama wants to build the country up and bring people together so that we can move forward, together — as one nation. The remarks like those uttered on Fox by Reverend Jackson do not advance the campaign’s cause of building a more perfect Union.”

Reverend Jackson is my dad and I’ll always love him. He should know how hard that I’ve worked for the last year and a half as a national co-chair of Barack Obama’s presidential campaign. So, I thoroughly reject and repudiate his ugly rhetoric. He should keep hope alive and any personal attacks and insults to himself.”

Jesse Jackson Whispering His Crude Remarks

Jesse Jackson Discusses His Crude Remarks

Jesse Jackson Issues a Formal Apology to Obama

Obama’s campaign was tight-lipped about the incident, issuing only a statement. “As someone who grew up without a father in the home, Senator Obama has spoken and written for many years about the issue of parental responsibility, including the importance of fathers participating in their children’s lives,” Obama spokesman Bill Burton wrote. “He also discusses our responsibility as a society to provide jobs, justice, and opportunity for all. He will continue to speak out about our responsibilities to ourselves and each other, and he of course accepts Reverend Jackson’s apology.”

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