Many faces, one portrait

Richard Avedon has photographed hundreds. But the soul he reveals is his own.

"I want to make portraits as intense as people," Richard Avedon says in the catalog for an exhibition of his photographs.

"Richard Avedon: Portraits" at the Metropolitan Museum until Jan. 5, contains 180 of these intense glimpses of humanity in extremis. They survey 50 years of the photographer's preoccupation with faces. There's a kind of documentary thoroughness to the lineup from the arts, politics, and intellectual circles – famous subjects such as Stravinsky, Horowitz, Andy Warhol, Willem de Kooning, Charlie Chaplin, Groucho Marx, and Jimmy Carter.

In this diverse array of talent and physiognomies, the relative uniformity of affect on the faces is surprising. The great French photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson nailed Avedon's gift with a backhanded compliment: "Your eyes observed with such acuteness the curious and wondrous people you photographed that they became the inhabitants of an Avedon world."

Avedon has defined the qualities that interest him in faces: conflict, contradiction, and confusion. Since he believes, as he says, "portraiture is performance," he casts himself in the role of auteur to elicit emotions that mirror his mood.

The portraits, Avedon admits, are really "self-portraits," micromanaged by him during the photo shoot and in the darkroom. When he photographed Michelangelo Antonioni, Avedon explicitly coached the Italian director: "What I am looking for is a sense of bewilderment in the face of life."

Marilyn Monroe performed – flirting, vamping, and dancing for the camera for two hours in her self-created role as glamorous siren. But the frame Avedon printed was snapped after she slumped, exhausted, in a chair. He transformed her from va-va-voom into a melancholy baby.

He portrays brilliant minds as aging lumps of flesh, isolated and despondent. Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, Carson McCullers, Ezra Pound, Bert Lahr, and Oscar Levant might have been articulate, witty, and urbane as all get-out. Filtered through Avedon's lens, they're frail vessels of anguish.

The most arresting portraits are of drifters from Avedon's series on the American West. Don't expect a Marlboro man. What you see are scary psychopaths and losers, smoldering with rage – the kind of person you'd cross the street to avoid.

What Avedon contributes to portraiture is a signature style: large-scale mug shots in bright light against a stark, white background. To convey an appearance of hyperrealism, he eschews props and dramatic poses. The closeups reveal every facial pore and rut. Where the face and personality are strong, his style produces unquestionably great portraits, like the searing diptychs of Samuel Beckett and Francis Bacon.

Isolating his subjects in a blank space converts them into symbols, lending larger significance. In a 1955 image of contralto Marian Anderson – with her eyes closed, mouth pursed – she personifies the passion of music. Cutting off her face at the edge suggests that her song flows beyond the frame.

The show cannily contrasts ideologies, as in mural-sized prints of military power versus flower power. On opposite walls, members of the Mission Council, shapers of Vietnam War policy, face off against the Chicago 7 antiwar activists.

These larger-than-life, multipanel prints – 8 by 32 feet – have an impact commensurate with their scale. But just as the faces on Mount Rushmore would not be memorable on a molehill, the portraits in themselves are not especially revealing.

What's missing in this work is movement. As a fashion photographer for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue from the 1940s to 1960s, Avedon pioneered a cinéma vérité approach, freezing his models as they ran, jumped, and twirled. Avedon's mentor at Harper's, the art director Alexey Brodovitch, commanded, "Astonish me!" Avedon astonished the world.

He posed Suzy Parker on a gargoyle at Notre Dame, incited Dovima to set three elephants prancing, and portrayed Jean Shrimpton as winged Nike whizzing through the air, her dress flying behind her.

By suspending the animation of subjects in his "art" portraits, Avedon works against his major strength. It's as if you deprived Shakespeare of words and reduced his plays to pantomime.

The expressive emotional content of his portraits is all the more an achievement, given the paucity of means he allows himself. He manages to get beyond the subject's mask to unmask a hidden core. Whether it's the subject's core or Avedon's is another question.

It's instructive to stroll down the hall to another Met show, "Portraits," on display until Jan. 12. These 40 classic photographs demonstrate what Avedon gains and loses by purging his pictures of extraneous detail. The iconic images, including daguerreotypes and masterworks by Julia Margaret Cameron and Nadar, run the gamut in terms of technique.

Edward Steichen's 1904 image of Richard Strauss, swathed in shadow, is pure romanticism, as the composer leans forward with a baleful glare. It employs all the dramatic effects Avedon avoids. Man Ray's 1921 view of Tristan Tzara shows the utility of props, as he poses the Dada founder atop a ladder, with an ax dangling above his head.

Another Alexey Brodovitch protégé, Hans Namuth, shows the importance of context. His 1951 portrait of Jackson Pollock, kneeling with an abstract painting on the floor in front of him and another on the wall behind, envelopes the painter in tangled skeins of paint.

Avedon's image of a beekeeper – a bare-chested man with bees teeming over his body – illustrates the essence of his approach. Avedon previsualized the image in a sketch, and then painted the man's body with pheromones to attract bees in the desired pattern. The result is sensationalistic, yet riveting.

As a metaphor, it suggests Avedon's philosophy: The threat of life's stings is omnipresent, but we carry on stoically, making art out of the danger life poses.

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