Great, on the face of it

The beauty of Richard Avedon's photography is strictly skin deep. Fortunately, says Andrew Graham-Dixon, he has developed an eye for sitters with unusually eloquent skin

On August 29 1983 Richard Avedon photographed Clar-ence Lippard. Mr Lippard, who as requested had not shaved or washed his hair or changed his customary appearance in any way for the occasion, stood against the photographer's white backdrop and stared into the lens of the camera. Then he raised his hand, perhaps to brush away a fly or scratch a sudden itch. Mr Avedon asked him to hold it right there, to keep still, please, while he took the picture.

Clarence Lippard, drifter, Interstate 80, Sparks, Nevada is a portrait which also has many of the qualities of a landscape photograph. Seen in void white space, Mr Lippard amounts to foreign territory. His face is a parched wasteland, an expanse of cracked mudflats and fields of scorched stubble. His hair is dry and combustible. His hand is a freckled stone. His alienness is both his weakness and his strength, and he is aware of the fact. He is poor and his clothes are cheap and he does not have a settled place in the world but he is still extraordinary and still his own man. He stares down his photographer with a defiance bordering on contempt. You can get my picture, Mr Avedon, but you can't get me.

The Avedon retrospective which opened last week at the National Portrait Gallery has been called Evidence, but Richard Avedon, Drifter might have fitted better. The career that it memorialises comes across as a meander at the end of which a destination is eventually reached and something truly remarkable is done.

"The best portraits," Avedon once said, "are always emperors or postmen. People who are all self-image, or people who have no self-image at all. They come with a kind of dignity to the camera." Avedon himself has divided his life unevenly between the self-possessed and the dispossessed, spending the majority of his time photographing the rich and the brilliant and the notorious.

The NPG has emptied its new 20th-century galleries to accommodate the exhibition so it is clearly important that Avedon should be seen to be a master of the photographic image. The catalogue to the NPG's exhibition reprints a stained note once sent to the photographer by the poet Marianne Moore, in which she remarks of the pictures he has just taken of her that "You certainly have the art of it!", before going on to request numerous detailed changes to her image. The letter is meant to substantiate the hagiography of Avedon to which it is an illustration, but it has the opposite effect. Moore's automatic assumption of Avedon's pliancy is rather shocking.

It also goes to the heart of his character as a magazine photographer. The Avedon of Vogue and Harper's Bazaar is a gigolo. Avedon has always had the knack of turning the emperors and empresses whom he has photographed into attractive but distant performers of public roles.

Access has been granted to him without qualms, in the knowledge that there is no fear of disclosure - no chance of him seeing or eliciting anything strange or haunting or unpredictable enough in his sitter to touch any of the selves behind the mask. He has photographed Marilyn Monroe, who looked bored when he did it, and Audrey Hepburn, who looked pretty (but then she always did). He has photographed Humphrey Bogart and Rudolf Nureyev and Charlie Chaplin and Pablo Picasso - but in no single one of many such cases has his image become the image of that person, the picture that has defined and fixed them in the public mind's eye.

It is not, unhappily, that Avedon has gained something profound in exchange. This has been plain since 1958 and the publication of his first book of portraits, Observations, which is an especially pompous title considering how unobservant nearly every photograph in it is. Intimacy has been sacrificed for nothing more than slickness. The famous people whom the photographer has pictured never seem to have allowed him much more than the slightest, temporary familiarity. On occasion he has compensated for the lack of feeling in his pictures in ways that suggest he is conscious of it as a failing. His Humphrey Bogart, for instance, is seen in extreme close- up, but the result is only a faked intimacy since the actor presented to Avedon such an urbane, uninterested mask of affability. It is rather like being blanked (in the nicest possible way) by someone dauntingly celebrated.

Not many of Avedon's fashion photographs have been included in this show. Perhaps fashion photography is not considered a serious occupation by the exhibition organisers. Perhaps Avedon himself would prefer to forget that he has spent much of his professional life working to commission, willingly producing pleasing pictures of pretty girls in pretty frocks. Whoever's intentional amnesia lies behind the omission, it is a miscalculation.

Avedon's willingness to please and his extreme reluctance to confront or unmask or otherwise challenge those who have ended up in front of his lens cannot be covered up - and to help people realise their most glamorous fantasies of themselves is, in any case, one of the highest vocations of the portraitist. The grimly puritan view that Rembrandt was a necessarily more profound painter than Rubens, the notion that those who depict people as they are must be more worthy than those who depict people as they would like to be - these are widely held preconceptions that deserve to be tested and challenged. The problem for Avedon has been that, having set out to please vanity, he has not pleased it inventively enough.

Artists are generally vain yet they are, revealingly, the people whom Avedon has had the very greatest difficulty in depicting. His photographs of men whom he considers brilliant are particularly and embarrassingly unsuccessful. Overawed by Picasso, quite unable to recognise that the man's talents were inextricable from his rowdy, nervous humanity, Avedon turned him into a romantic clich: an entranced seer, gazing heavenwards for inspiration. The old goat looks as though he found the whole act of imposture tedious in the extreme.

Picasso's boredom bears ample witness to the fact that Avedon's shortcoming as a photographer has not been the fact that he is a brown-noser, but the fact that he is an insufficiently imaginative one. Annie Leibowitz is a far more considerable, witty, brilliant and amusing reinventor of the glamorous selves of glamorous people than Avedon has ever been - although for some reason it seems to be heresy, at least in America, where Avedon is taken very seriously indeed, to say so.

Avedon has been nothing if not various. From the start of his career, he has photographed the poor as well as the rich, down-and-outs as well as up-and-ins. He has not often done it especially memorably, and perhaps admitted (rather touchingly) his sense of his own failings when he said of a fellow photographer: "We walk around with Cartier-Bressons in our heads, thinking they're our history. Our memories of what we never witnessed were created by him."

The same cannot be said of Avedon, although he has regularly aspired to match those triumphs of universal witnessing. His solutions to the momentous events of modern history have tended almost invariably to be banal. When Kennedy was shot, he went to Times Square and photographed various appropriately saddened individuals holding the same newspaper, with its banner headline "PRESIDENT SHOT DEAD" held up to the camera. Only someone with a wide streak of vulgarity could have strained for profundity like that.

Avedon has also tried his hand at social conscience, although his artfully grainy pictures of lunatic asylum inmates and his emphatically brusque and horrible images of Vietnamese napalm victims also manage to strike subtly false notes - in one case it is as if he cannot really bear to sympathise with his subjects and so has turned them into abstractions of mental disturbance; in the other it is as if the blatancy of such harsh witnessing is all he can come up with to salve his (and America's) guilt. The suspicion lurks, however, that the photographer has put on what he thinks are the appropriate feelings: they are the emotional equivalent of paste jewellery. When he has striven for the Decisive Moment, (as in his cub journalist shots of the fall of the Berlin Wall), the results have been little short of disastrous.

None of this is to say that Avedon's has not, in the end, been a fruitful career. He has made some great photographs (and that is enough to be grateful for) and they were created by the last of his many alter egos, Avedon the clear-eyed realist - although the divide between the several different sides of his character as a photographer may not be as wide as some puzzled commentators appear to find it.

With the series of pictures that he called In the American West, Avedon created an extraordinary and compelling body of photographic images. The effortless superiority of these pictures to everything else in the NPG retrospective is stark and startling. Suddenly, you find yourself in the presence not of images but of people themselves - touched and disturbed by a reality that is, literally, staring you right in the face. Too ground down and hungry and indifferent to cut themselves off from Avedon's inquiring camera, the people he photographed in Nevada and Utah and Colorado and New Mexico simply stood there and allowed themselves to be recorded for posterity.

The effectiveness of these pictures has something to do with Avedon's subjects and their lack of barriers. But it must also have much to do with the photographer's late recognition of his own limitations. Knowing, in the end, that it was his eternal fate to be superficial, unchallenging, unimaginative, emotionally cold and banal, Avedon brilliantly evolved a form of photography in which none of those defects can spoil or diminish. Having done that, he got to work. These people led hard lives, were marked by them - and then Avedon took their photographs. To look at them in their grim and self-contained otherness feels like witnessing actual slices of human existence itself: all these people have is their sense of themselves, and they cling to it, each of them, as fiercely and defiantly as life itself. Avedon had enough sense, in his best work, to leave himself out of the picture.

n At the National Portrait Gallery, London (0171-306 0055), to 11 June

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor