- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2008


With essays by John Lahr, Mike Nichols, Andre Gregory, Mitsuko Uchida and Twyla Tharp

Abrams, $75, 304 pages, illus.


By Richard Avedon

With an introduction by Renata Adler, and essays by Paul Roth and Frank Goodyear

Steidl / Corcoran, $60, 350 pages, illus.


Even after four years since his death, Richard Avedon’s footprint on the world of art remains sharp, deep and probably permanent. His photographs still hold all the high-strung energy required to leap across seven decades of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Mr. Avedon’s admirers and former partners have cemented his two favorite and life-long themes, namely political power and performance, into twin monuments, book ends to his legacy, shaped into the form of two huge coffee-table books. This summation pleases me especially, since Avedon and I kept a creative friendship and close counsel for 26 years.

Those who knew him well still argue about whether or not Avedon climbed his way to the top by walking all over people. When his first book of political work, “Nothing Personal” appeared in 1964, critics charged that Mr. Avedon merely used his Madison Avenue skills to become a cartoonist with a camera. Nothing much in the work allowed his subjects to voluntarily reveal themselves.

Even in 2004, Karl Rove complained that his portrait by Mr. Avedon “makes me look like a complete idiot.”

This was all a big misunderstanding, and as in other instances of wounded feelings, it was as painful for the photographer as it was for anyone who felt he had kicked them in the shins. Mr. Avedon battled creative highs and lows throughout his life, and in private took almost any criticism very hard. More than once, it led to fallow periods that stretched out for years, when he lost all desire to express himself meaningfully through images.

The frenetic highs, however, made it possible for him to leave his foundation an archive of a half million negatives, from which 15,000 different images had been published in his lifetime, a volume which no other lion can surmount in the history of visual arts.

All Mr. Avedon wanted to explain, in quite revolutionary terms, is precisely what transpires between the two people on either side of a camera.Sometimes, he confessed, his own manner and method was so opaque that the people almost took their own portrait. At other times, he described it as an almost embarrassing, instantaneous and unearned intimacy; or as a silent, ferocious battle of wills.

Mr. Avedon spent his whole life testing this hypothesis, suspecting that all anyone can do is self-consciously perform, “deliberately or unintentionally … a way of telling about ourselves in the hope of being recognized as what we’d like to be.”

For instance, many have found it fascinating to watch a man shave. What does such a person see, or think of himself? What brings on all those odd expressions? A young boy learns what his father must do.A young woman, perhaps recalling her own first inklings, finds it a very seductive performance. Of course a bit of common wisdom also worries about how some men, especially politicians, manage to face themselves each morning in the bathroom mirror. That special kind of sink is often, after all, called a vanity.

Now, what if in order to study these questions, the camera could dwell on a performer of Marlon Brando’s caliber, back in 1951 when he was at the peak of his “Streetcar” magnetism?

Avedon had the enviable clout to take any idea that struck his fancy, get on the phone, pull a few strings and assemble the most amazing experimental theaters in front of his camera, where he had the best seat - virtually the only seat - in the house.

“He looked at you like a child looks - without any shame of looking,” recalled one of his sitters, the playwright Anna Deavere Smith.

“Of course, some of the people who are most expert at wearing masks are politicians,” explained the Corcoran’s senior curator for photography, Paul Roth, who spent years preparing the Avedon retrospective along with its companion book. “Avedon understood this, and so do most politicians. After all, their very lives sometimes depend on it.”

But this back and forth through mirrors and viewfinders makes it quite likely to catch art imitating life. Mr. Avedon became the inspiration for and technical adviser to Fred Astaire during the movie musical “Funny Face” in 1956.While a guest in Avedon’s Manhattan studio during 1959, Cary Grant couldn’t resist the chance to be the perfect ladies’ man.

A scrappy James Carville looked much less pleasant in his portrait in 2004, but “was tickled pink about the image. He didn’t make me do anything I didn’t want to do; he just allowed me to be myself.”

On the subject of aging and mortality, there are performance studies of Bob Dylan crossing 32 years, and political biographies such as Alabama’s Gov. George Wallace growing from a pugnacious politician in 1963, into a paralyzed ex-candidate for the presidency 13 years later, and with a full 30 years’ passage, into a man utterly dependent on his black valet.

Next we see the most highly decorated soldier from Vietnam (1971) evolving into a well-armored specialist at Fort Hood (2004).

The dancer and close personal friend Twyla Tharp recalled how the two of them made “a hybrid, an image belonging to us both…. How to distract gravity?How to cheat life and get eternity? Dick was a fabulous thief.”

The pictures range across 58 years of his nonstop career, with an extra drive that filled the last 12 months, as his body became a wisp of his former self. One tenth of the work gathered here comes from that last surge of creativity.

For the last 30 years of his life, ever since the death of his own father, Mr. Avedon obsessed over Shakespeare’s “King Lear,” and so unsurprisingly latched onto the regrets of a dying patriarch one more time in 2004 with Christopher Plummer and director Jonathan Miller sharing a silent moment of recognition, the artist mere weeks away from death and looking just as weary as they did.

  • J. Ross Baughman is a senior editor at The Washington Times News Service.
  • An extended portfolio of Richard Avedon’s photographs from these two books can be viewed online at www.washington times.com/Media/photos

    An exhibition of photographs by Richard Avedon called “Portraits of Power” appears at the Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., through Jan. 25, 2009.

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