BOOKS / The uncandid camera: In the photographs of Richard Avedon, whose trademark has always been a stark white backcloth, no incidental is accidental
Sunday 29 May 1994
His images are composed, manipulated and artful; no incidental is accidental. His faces and bodies are inscribed against a trademark seamless white background, and they are as bold and as simplified as those in a poster by Lautrec (and often just as oddly cropped). His fashion shots with their elaborate staging and racy narrative drive are as energetic (and artificial) as stills from an Ernst Lubitsch film (a direct influence). As he once remarked: 'The pictures that moved me most as a young man were Cameron's portraits of Herschel and Carlyle, Nadar's of his wife. All of them formal, even stylised, none of them candid, but what's wonderful about them is that they're not addicted to the perfect surface of things.' The level of Avedon's addiction to perfection and surface is another question, despite the many artful 'mistakes' he has introduced into his prints (overexposure, blurring, exaggerated black and white contrasts).
His portraits of drifters and workers out of the American West are as confrontational as August Sander's documentation of representatives of all the German trades and professions, although Sander seems to maintain a formal distance, whereas Avedon crouches over his subjects with curatorial glee. If Avedon and Sander both make us uncomfortable they do so because the viewer wavers between a curiosity about the individual and a complacency about the group that individual stands for, between psychological particularity and sociological generality - always an awkward fit.
From the beginning, Avedon collaborated with art directors, a partnership that inevitably placed a new emphasis on pacing, sequencing, print manipulation and dramatic changes in dimension - the exact opposite of Cartier-Bresson's naturalness or Walker Evans' grave, recording impulse. Avedon was 26 when he was discovered in 1949 by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harper's Bazaar. Brodovitch provided a forum for Avedon's first photographs, just as later he did the layouts for Avedon's first book, Observations (1959), which had a stylish, indeed arch text by Truman Capote ('Chanel, a spare spruce sparrow voluble and vital as a woodpecker . . .').
Already in his first book Avedon's characteristic look was indelibly formulated. Jane Livingston, the curator of the Avedon exhibition now at the Whitney Museum in New York, eloquently decodes this look in her brilliant essay (one of the clearest and most useful I've ever read about a photographer). As she says about Observations: 'Photographs sprawl across two pages; figures are poised against featureless white backgrounds; a series of images depict variations on a subject, as though taken from a single contact sheet; pages filled purely with type alternate with type-and-image pages and with captionless images. The most essential device is the alternation of highly polished, sculpturally serene images and images that explode with movement. Observations . . . is primarily a compendium of portraits of distinguished individuals, including some of Avedon's most enduring pictures - those of Charlie Chaplin, Marianne Moore, Bert Lahr, Marcel Duchamp, Carson McCullers, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Ezra Pound.'
Avedon has always felt the need of a strong art director to inspire him and to edit his work. After Brodovitch retired, Avedon thought his work was slipping until he teamed up with Marvin Israel. That new collaboration resulted in Avedon's first full-scale portrait exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery in New York in 1975, an installation that played exciting tricks with scale - a sort of artistic funhouse.
Studio photography is Avedon's medium. He has never liked photojournalism, which he considers invasive, and even his pictures in the American West series were posed. Moreover, for that project, he often went out looking for someone to correspond to a pre-existing image in his head. His portrait of a bald, naked man covered with clusters of bees, for instance, was something he staged by placing advertisements in newspapers asking beekeepers to send in photos of themselves.
I spent only a few hours with Avedon and that was 14 years ago, but it was at the time that he was working on the American West series. He was travelling with a portable studio to uranium mines and posing workers whose faces were still streaked white against white seamless paper (much as Irving Penn had done in making portraits of Indians in the Andes, except Penn had used a posed backdrop in a traditional portrait photographer's studio). Avedon told me he often asked his male subjects to touch their stomachs - always a revealing, intimate gesture when men perform it, according to him. He seemed troubled by the implictions of these photos, perhaps by their status as portraits of the anonymous poor by an artist known for his glossy pictures of the rich and famous. He kept asking me what I thought of his work, but I was so dazzled by his celebrity, his flattering solicitation of my opinion and the immense blow ups he'd made that I couldn't come up with a genuine unintimidated response.
I remember we were discussing Susan Sontag, who at that moment was under attack by the American left for having said that Communism is fascism with a human face. Avedon remarked that fame was like a valley and that once one had crossed to its farther side, one could never become less famous. He felt sure she would weather the storm.
I mention this encounter because it reveals Avedon's understanding of the hydraulics of fame, as well as his constant anxiety about his work, especially as evaluated by writers, even virtually unknown writers. Of course, those who have written about Avedon include Roland Barthes, James Baldwin, Truman Capote, Susan Sontag and Harold Brodkey. The net effect of so much high-class hype is not unlike the effect of the white seamless background; as Avedon has said: 'A white background permits people to become symbols of themselves.' Just as Avedon's court of art directors and writers guarantees the seriousness of his oeuvre through an impressive presentation (an oeuvre always trembling on the brink of the slick), in the same way the white background makes the sitter into a playing card and translates a particular scoundrel into a Knave or just another actress into the Queen of Hearts. This ironic elevation seems appropriate to people who are already advertisements for themselves, since media fame is already static, but when bums or freaks are made into symbols of themselves they are stripped of their future (their only hope) and fixed forever in the present (their chagrin).
Photography, of course, invariably objectifies people (the French word for lens is objectif), and it would be absurd to blame Avedon for the essential characteristic of his medium. In our era of the politics of identity, a photographer is that most suspect of creatures, someone who imposes his vision of another human being on the world. But Avedon is way beyond such puerile discussions. As he has written, 'The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.'
'Evidence: 1944-1994' by Richard Avedon, with essays by Jane Livingston and Adam Gopnik, is published by Cape at pounds 50.
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