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.
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