By Catherine Wagley
By Channing Sargent
By L.A. Weekly critics
By Amanda Lewis
By Catherine Wagley
By Carol Cheh
By Keegan Hamilton
By Bill Raden
In 1976, Rolling Stone devoted almost an entire issue to Avedon’s “The Family,” a series of portraits of America’s political elite, with 69 subjects spread across 48 pages. Among them were images of Reagan, Ford, Carter and Bush Sr. (and not one of them wearing a flag pin). And if he pulled back from his subject, all that white space could make even the leader of the free world seem smaller, diminished within Avedon’s frame. One victim was then–Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who arrived for his few minutes in front of the camera, and begged the photographer, “Be kind.”
There is also a sour portrait of the FBI’s Mark Felt, lawman and Nixon-era bureaucrat still decades from revealing himself as Watergate’s secret informer, Deep Throat. As a family portrait of that political moment, “The Family” was grim. And as a record of a particular class of people, it wasn’t as pure as August Sander’s methodical documentation of German society. Avedon was louder than that. His pictures were often condemned as “cruel.” One reporter was overheard saying at a party: “Richard Avedon’s pics of political people in Rolling Stone make you never want to vote again.”
In 1993, Avedon protested: “I don’t know what cruelty has to do with art. This is not a mugging, this is a picture.” Yet his final portrait of segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace that year is an image worthy of Francis Bacon or Rob Zombie. The picture shows the old man collapsing from age and the lingering devastation of a 1972 assassination attempt, his face bitter and shrinking beneath the hovering presence of a black caretaker. It was bleak and intentional. “I felt in a sense that I took advantage of him,” Avedon told me after it was published in The New Yorker, “but if I’m ever going to take advantage of any son of a bitch, it’s going to be George Wallace.”
A decade later, he had Karl Rove looking buffoonish and hollow, grinning stupidly like the least-trustworthy used-car salesman on the lot. In Power, Rove is quoted: “Avedon was an elitist snob who deliberately set me up. . The portrait is foolish, stupid, insulting. It makes me look like a complete idiot.” Mission accomplished.
Power even manages to reach into this year’s great political moment, with a closing color portrait of Barack Obama, keynote speaker at the 2004 Democratic Convention. Not yet elected to the U.S. Senate, Obama here looks more like a young community organizer than future president. He’s in an open-collared shirt and peers calmly into the camera, a picture of possibility from Avedon the rest of us wouldn’t see realized until four years after he was gone.