In a star-spangled manner

EXHIBITIONS For 50 years, Richard Avedon's photographs have captured the obsessions of America. But not, a major retrospective suggests, its soul
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IF YOU had to choose just one photographer to illustrate the public concerns of American life since the last war, the chances are that you'd settle for Richard Avedon. You might not pick him happily or whole-heartedly, but you'd have the assurance that he's covered so much transatlantic ground in the past 50 years. Furthermore, Avedon has ap-proached so many branches of the camera's art. Documentary, portraiture, war photography, fashion, even paparazzi photography: all these have had a place in his imagination.

I write that he has "approached" such branches of camerawork because he has never been committed to a single one of them. Although he has a signature style, Avedon's character is elusive. He's fond of self-portraiture but has never printed and published intimate photographs of other people. Surely his elusiveness is bound up with the public dramas of the subject matter. We can't pin down Avedon the man, the creative and feeling person, because he so involves us in the obsessions of his nation. Overwhelmingly, the theme of his work is the glamour, seedy or splendid, of American self-awareness.

From the first, Avedon has been involved with magazines, mostly at the richer end of the market. He began with a special empathy for Harper's Bazaar. Avedon's first and most im-portant influence came from Alexey Brodovitch, art director at Harper's, who was just as skilled with layout and typography as with the camera. All Avedon's later work reflects this training. So do his exhibitions, which began as early as 1962. Charles Saumarez Smith, the new Director of the National Portrait Gallery, writes in the catalogue of his amazement when he saw the present show at the Cologne Kunsthalle, with prints enormously enlarged and stuck to the walls without frames. But it wasn't quite an aesthetic amazement. It was the sight of the Kunsthalle's transformation. The museum had become a magazine, and that's also the purpose of the installation at the NPG.

Clear, bright, monumental rather than illustrative images; large areas of brilliant white; bold black borders; pictures magisterially cropped by the photographer rather than by someone on the picture desk; chic contemporary typefaces; photographs spread over two pages or in a gatefold; above all an atmosphere of money and success - here are the elements of Avedon's magazine style. His photo- graphs are not successful if they stray from these formulae. And just as Avedon's magazines feature glamour and fame, so also their photography must be smart, newsy, just a little bit sexy. Real sensuality, one notices, has no place in Avedon's work.

His photography is enslaved to famous people, so his achievements ought to be in the field of celebrity portraiture. I prefer his earlier work of this sort. The best of it appeared in his book Observations, published in 1959. Here were pictures of Louis Armstrong, Ezra Pound, Carson McCullers, Bogart, Monroe and numerous others. Accompanying comments were by Truman Capote. The writer and the photographer had similar preoccupations. This is Capote on his ambitions at the time of Observations: "I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry."

Very like Avedon, except that neither man attained poetry. And it's prose that should be precise while poetry has the opportunity to be free and deep. Avedon's camerawork mirrors Capote's confusions about the creative future. I suspect that the youngish photographer was influenced by In Cold Blood, the book in Capote's mind. Avedon was Capote's buddy at the time of the murderers' trial and the wild success of the non-fiction novel that described the Kansas killings. One of the murderers and his father are in the NPG show, flanked by WH Auden and the Everly Brothers. A poet, a killer, pop stars - all famous and therefore equally treated by Avedon's lens.

In Cold Blood changed American middlebrow writing. Norman Mailer, Elmore Leonard, to name only two among dozens, took their cue from its dispassionate and (one might say) photographic tone. Avedon has equally been an influence on middlebrow culture. Pop art owes something to him. Perhaps some kinds of film are also indebted. Society magazines of the past three decades are unimaginable without his sort of photography. But what happens when Avedon leaves high society and its concerns? His technical skills, the precision of the camera's prose, do not suffice. Avedon's photographs lack the freedom of poetry.

His enslavement to glamour appears most clearly in the portraits of itinerant workers, drifters and other poor people in the American South-west. Avedon poses them as carefully as he would direct a New York model. Unwilling to observe the poor going about their own activities, Avedon negates the documentary tradition of American photography.

No doubt he realised that documentary of the Walker Evans type was dead and could not be revived. Speaking of death, I find overtones of assassination in Avedon's work after the mid-Sixties. How could they not be there, given his access to Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, to Vietnam victims (alas, they look as though they had been specially flown in to his studio), to the women in that celebrated photograph The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution (1963) - or indeed his privileged sight of Andy Warhol's scarred belly?

Avedon was fascinated by the Warhol entourage, perhaps because Warhol had begun as a commercial illustrator and was canny about layout, good times and the right parties. Avedon's work almost always beg-uiles the magazine purchaser but I cannot like his photos of Andy's friends. Nor can I imagine one of his portraits doing justice to a highbrow American artist. He never attempted such a thing, so far as we know. This has been clever of Avedon. He's seen so much of America but cannot engage with its tragedies or artistic triumphs. Avedon knows his area of renown and remains within its limits.

! NPG, WC2, 071-306 0055, to 11 June.