Avedon Restrospective: A Study in Perspective

New York show highlights controversy over `taking a photo' vs. `making a picture'

RICHARD AVEDON is probably the best-known living American photographer. After all, how many photographers have been portrayed by Fred Astaire, as Avedon was in the 1957 film, ``Funny Face''?

A retrospective covering 50 years of his black-and-white photography, on display at the Whitney Museum of American Art until June 26, demonstrates why Avedon's work is both controversial and revered.

It's easy to admire his pictures. As a fashion photographer for more than 40 years at ``Harper's Bazaar'' and ``Vogue,'' Avedon revolutionized the high-style image.

His mannequins do more than model - they move. Not to mention run, jump, and spin in the air like tops. In one image, Twiggy leaps like a sprite unleashed from gravity.

Expert at commercial images that mask a subject's flaws, Avedon pursued the opposite track for his private photography.

In a mug-shot style he invented, Avedon poses his subjects against a blank white background. Under harsh strobe lights, they stare straight at the camera in a blunt, frontal pose. Avedon's goal is not to conceal imperfections but instead to reveal unexpected truths.

Frequently he succeeds, providing novel insights into public personae. A head shot of Groucho Marx shows not the familiar clown but a pensive philosopher. Charlie Chaplin poses like a mischievous satyr. Instead of the little tramp, we get a defiant vamp.

Because his portraits do not glamorize, however, Avedon has come in for harsh criticism. A portrait of the elegant designer, Coco Chanel, exposes her rope-like neck and flaring nostrils, an unflattering image for which she never forgave him. Critics have called his pictures misanthropic; one even called them ``the photographic equivalent of road kill.''

``A portrait is not a likeness,'' Avedon insists, ``but an opinion.'' The Whitney show makes clear that theater is the underlying metaphor in all his work. Like an auteur, Avedon directs his subjects, who become actors in a collaborative performance that creates a portrait. He eliminates background detail to focus on extreme closeups where hair, gesture, and expression suggest character.

``Taking'' a photograph is just the beginning for Avedon, who ``makes'' his own version of the subject by manipulating the negative. Through darkroom wizardry such as collaging, cropping, and retouching, he highlights or obscures detail to achieve a desired effect.

For Avedon, the camera is far from a ``pencil of nature,'' as described by the inventor of photography, Fox Talbot. The camera is a means to mirror his own mind and mood. Not content to be a finger pressing the shutter, he leaves his fingerprints all over a subject's face.

Hence the persistent controversy: Does a photographer have a moral responsibility to represent his sitter accurately?

No, Avedon maintains. He's after more elusive quarry than surface appearance.

One poseur whom Avedon unmasks is the writer Dorothy Parker. Instead of a witty intellectual of the Algonquin Round Table, he shows a dissolute alcoholic, with pouches like saddlebags under her eyes.

Avedon nullifies the debate over photography as an objective or subjective medium. The sitter is raw material for the shooter's statement.

Exploitative? Maybe, but Avedon's compositional devices often achieve striking visual effects that are self-justifying as memorable images. The writer Isak Dinesen, engulfed by a voluminous sable coat, looks like a peanut head perched atop a furball. The singer Marian Anderson erupts into song like a volcano, a seamless fusion of form and content.

Curator Jane Livingston has juxtaposed portraits in the exhibition to telling effect. Installing images of artists near harrowing portraits of mental patients implies how close genius is to madness. In a portrait of poet Ezra Pound howling in pain, iconoclasm, and suffering seem inseparable.

Besides portraiture and fashion photography, another constant in Avedon's career is reportage. Since the 1940s, he has indulged an anthropologist's yen to capture images that illuminate the social milieu.

One gallery displays four huge composite portraits dealing with different facets of power in the early `70s. In a huge (9 x 35ft.) group picture, he presents power brokers, such as General Creighton Abrams, during the Vietnam War. Opposite is a power-to-the-people mural of the Chicago Seven, anti-war protesters. Andy Warhol's outrageous Factory retinue, many nude, and Allen Ginsberg and his extended family adorn the remaining walls, exemplars of flower-power and the Family of Man.

The prints raise the issue of scale. Monumentality accounts for a large part of their gee-whiz impact.

In a few instances, viewers might wish that the curator had been less enthralled and more discerning. Two rooms of serial portraits have an effect of diluting rather than augmenting the impact of the photographs included. Five portraits of Oscar Levant emphasize that one shot is powerful and others less so.

A room hung with eight portraits of Avedon's aging father is disconcertingly like being in an Egyptian tomb, where walls depict images of a deceased pharaoh's exploits. While these images, some shot shortly before his father's death, undoubtedly have great personal significance for Avedon, their repetition dulls whatever effect a solo shot might produce.

Paradoxically, a gallery hung with images of people who were absolute strangers to Avedon has the most disquieting effect among the show's 200 pictures.

Here are Diane Arbus-like ``freaks'' in portraits Avedon shot in the American West. A boy displays a snake's viscera like a bandolier across his bib overalls. A couple of tow-headed teens glare at the camera, as sinister as Bonnie and Clyde.

Part of the fascination inspired by Avedon's work is that freezing a slice of life permits us to stare brazenly at types whose gaze we would shun in person. More like voyeurs than viewers, we scrutinize every wrinkle on a drifter's weathered face.

A portrait of a bare torso teeming with bees shows how Avedon's work has nothing to do with accident. He pre-visualized the shot in great detail, found a suitable subject, and painted the man's head and trunk with queen-bee pheromones to attract drones in the exact pattern he conceived. The portrait combines formal beauty with inventiveness and causes an almost physical recoil.

Avedon's photographs are the antithesis of candid camera. Minutely orchestrated, they compellingly illustrate the use of photography as a non-naturalistic medium.

Through this intervention, his subjects become more than just another pretty face. They embody the French concept of jolie-laide - a woman who is both beautiful and ugly. Ambiguity and contradiction interest Avedon more than classic symmetry.

* `Richard Avedon: Evidence 1944-1994' will travel to Cologne, Milan, and London, then to The Minneapolis Institute of Arts (June-August 1995) and The Los Angeles County Museum of Art (Summer 1996). Many photographs in the exhibition are included in Avedon's `An Autobiography' (Random House, 1993).

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