BOOKS / The uncandid camera: In the photographs of Richard Avedon, whose trademark has always been a stark white backcloth, no incidental is accidental

IF WHAT you're looking for in a photograph is a heart-stopping detail (a scar above the eyebrow faint as a silk thread, the white trace of a missing wedding band on a tan hand), then Richard Avedon is not your man. His pictures are the opposite of casual snaps brimming over with unconscious life. You'd never look at his pictures in search of a potential lover or to learn something about another country or as though you were thumbing through someone's family memories; his work isn't pornographic or informative or an equivalent to an album of souvenirs.

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.

(Photographs omitted)

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago
    Orthorexia nervosa: How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition

    Orthorexia nervosa

    How becoming obsessed with healthy eating can lead to malnutrition
    Lady Chatterley is not obscene, says TV director

    Lady Chatterley’s Lover

    Director Jed Mercurio on why DH Lawrence's novel 'is not an obscene story'
    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests

    Set a pest to catch a pest

    Farmers in tropical forests are training ants to kill off bigger pests