The question was always a problem for Richard Avedon. Even in the final decade of his life and career as the most celebrated, ridiculed, honored, debated portrait and fashion photographer of his time, journalists and critics would posit the same intolerable, unbelievable notion: Is photography really art? And it didn’t sound much kinder coming from his friend Charlie Rose, playing the genial provocateur and devil’s advocate for the TV viewers at home in 1993. Anyone watching could have detected Avedon’s moment of pain. “Listen, that is such a bogus and nitwit thing to ask .”
The occasion then was the publication of his monumental career retrospective, An Autobiography, a gathering of six decades of work: pictures of presidents and fashion models, poets and radicals, divas and drifters, all of them in ways glamorous and clinical, and often not beautiful. Truman Capote once advised him, “A guy has got to hustle his book,” most especially when The New York Times was likely to disapprove. So Avedon was on the interview circuit once more, a mildly flamboyant and articulate charmer, chatting himself up. And I must have asked him the same nitwit question that year. “I never wanted to be called an artist. I wanted to be called a photographer,” he told me over Thai leftovers upstairs at his Manhattan studio. “Anything is an art if you do it at the level of an art,” he went on, meaning “art” could be painting or photography, or writing, cooking or parenting. It could be anything, which was his way of not really answering.
The reality was that he considered himself as much a serious artist as his contemporaries Diane Arbus and Robert Frank, and maintained absolute control over his work and how it was presented. Each book was a new performance and reinterpretation, freely shattering Avedon’s own commitment to the uncropped photograph, or forcing perverse juxtapositions on facing pages (i.e., a stoic Vietnamese napalm victim versus a panicked fashion model). It was all in service of the printed page, which was especially true with An Autobiography. After Avedon died in 2004, the books kept coming, but in his absence they lost something essential. Last year, the Smithsonian compiled his pictures and outtakes of a newly elected JFK and family into a book more encyclopedic than inspired, and another from the Louisiana Museum of Art was mostly a rehash of images from earlier books.
Avedon himself recycled his favorite pictures as a carefully selected canon, leaving out the many anonymous covers for Vogue and GQ, and almost anything he ever did in color. He’d decided how he wanted to be remembered, and it wasn’t for gleaming headshots of the rising/falling celeb/model of the moment (even if that’s what often paid the rent and his 15 assistants). Fortunately, some of the best of what got left out has been collected in Performance and Portraits of Power, two large volumes that extend Avedon’s legacy, with a bit of the old master’s vitality and nerve.
In Performance, his subjects are artists and performers, the ideal human specimen or beautiful mind, captured at peak energy or with a smoldering stillness. There is a high-stepping Audrey Hepburn on the set of Funny Face (the 1957 musical loosely based on Avedon’s life), and underground idols from Warhol’s Factory. From 1994 is a photograph of actor Robert Mitchum’s sagging, gnarled face, filling the frame like a knot of wild oak. And there are definitive portraits of the Beatles, Brando and Nureyev, of Capote, Streisand and Björk. We get some proof sheets with Avedon’s markings, outtakes that document a collaboration between photographer and subject. In this era of Photoshop forgery and excessive retouching, Avedon’s portraits are startlingly real.
If there is an image to bridge the glamorous and the grim, it is Avedon’s candid studio portrait of an exhausted Marilyn Monroe, caught in a silent moment of emptiness at the end of a long day of posing and prancing in character as herself. It appears again in Performance, as she sits in the frame, slouching and slack-jawed, nothing left.
By the 1960s, his serious portrait work was made in front of a simple white backdrop, a minimal setting to draw maximum focus on the subject. And he began using an ancient 8-x-10 Deardorf view camera, rendering his subjects in extreme detail, with a look of harsh black-and-white glamour appropriate to the era.
Avedon was no bohemian. He grew up the son of a Fifth Avenue dress-shop owner and after World War II found rapid success as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar. But he had other ambitions. Though his attempts at street photography were forgettable, Avedon had a gift for blunt portraiture of the famous and the horrible, which inevitably drew him not only to artists but also to the political elite.
These were tougher subjects to photograph, without the easy charm and exuberance inherent in a performer. Avedon found something else within the political power brokers’ rigid postures and practiced smiles, and he remained obsessed with the political scene until the final days of his life. In the ’60s and early ’70s, that was partly because he saw himself as an activist, even if he wasn’t expressing a political philosophy unique in the world of New York fashion photographers. He was interested in civil rights, in the Vietnam War, in the great movements and events and public figures of his time, just as Norman Mailer and Gore Vidal were as writers. The era delivered a remarkable cast of characters. Within Portraits of Power are Avedon’s dueling group shots of the Chicago 7 and the U.S. Mission Council, which guided the Vietnam War, both photographed like heroic police lineups.
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.
PERFORMANCE: RICHARD AVEDON | With essays by John Lahr, Mike Nichols, André Gregory, Mitsuko Uchida and Twyla Tharp | Abrams | 304 pages | $75 hardcover
RICHARD AVEDON: PORTRAITS OF POWER | With essays by Renata Adler, Frank Goodyear, Paul Greenhalgh and Paul Roth | Steidl | 298 pages | $60 hardcover