Caught in his own spotlight

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THERE is something uncanny in the youthfulness of Richard Avedon, something preternatural about that slim, energetic, bejeaned figure with the flying mane of grey, swivelling against a line of his own compelling portraits. He's 70 years old, but looks nearer 30 - so young, in fact, that the hair colour seems almost cosmetic. Look how consciously he has positioned himself in the picture - the human target in a shooting gallery of cut-out heads; dramatically turning back, arm flung out like a duellist to face the camera. 'How could he not be conscious of the camera?' said the photographer Maggie Steber. 'He knows so much about what it can do.'

Here he is in his studio in Manhattan, selecting from a bunch of enormous proof prints for his retrospective next March at New York's Whitney Museum - the first time the museum has put on a major photography show and a decision which elicited high disdain from the conservative art critic Hilton Kramer: 'This is the ultimate capitulation to celebrity, money and fashion at the expense of art.'

Celebrity, money and fashion have certainly passed before Avedon's camera. In the 50 years since he began work at Harper's Bazaar he has revolutionised both fashion photography and portraiture. There are many long and (mostly) pleasurable arguments to be had about who was the greater in the Fifties or Sixties, Avedon or Irving Penn. But what Avedon put into his pictures is still there: energy and attack combined with tremendous technique which gives an inimitable clarity to his portraits and a sense of movement and brio to his fashion pictures with their artful scene-setting and extremes of elegance. There is something extreme about all his pictures: when his subjects confront the camera with a terrifying directness, the pictures come back dangerous, challenging, the result - it can sometimes seem - of aggression. Looking at his portraits can be an uncomfortable experience - human beings pinned against the sea of endless white with nothing to support them; no way for us to escape their gaze.

Thousands of people must have gone before his camera. And as each decade passed he photographed the people who made it distinctive. From members of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam War to the camera-hungry stars of last year's Oscars, he has endowed every one with that quality we now recognise as celebrity. Like Andy Warhol, Avedon understands that celebrity is not dependent upon a star, but on the artist's ability to give star treatment.

Often you get the sense of the anthropologist at work, fascinated with each species that comes under the glare of his arc-light. But just when you think that a capacity for mercy has retreated, there comes a picture which catches, say, Marilyn Monroe, off-guard. And you see a portrait that gets beneath the skin.

His new contract with Tina Brown's New Yorker, his recent heavily stylised, exotic and rather old-fashioned advertising campaigns for Gianni Versace, and his multi-million-dollar 10-book deal with Random House, have only increased

his influence in the Nineties, at a time in his life when a natural decline in power might be the norm. Later this month An Autobiography is published by Jonathan Cape, which pulls together his portraits, fashion pictures, reportage, collages and snapshots. It is constructed as a masterful series of juxtapositions, and none so masterful as the central pairing of the photographer - the iconographer - and the icon: this is where Avedon gets to be next to Marilyn Monroe.-