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October 05, 2004

Richard Avedon 1923-2004


Richard Avedon, as many know, passed away over the weekend, quite suddenly and sadly. There have been many well-written obituaries that have appeared, with a variety of observations and remniscences, and I've listed a few below:


Extensive Telegraph Obituary

Guardian Obituary

Vince Aletti obituary in the Village Voice

New Yorker remembrance from Adam Gopnik

NY Times Obituary written by Andy Grundberg

Slide show on Richard Avedon's "The Sixties"

When I was getting more interested in the history of photography and some of its leading lights, Avedon was one of the big names that I was ambivalent about for a long time. Not because of his background in fashion -- this was a huge plus as far as I was concerned, especially with a mentor like Alexey Brodovitch, and in terms of giving his images something beyond the stiff, painterly formality and reverence for the subject produced by more classical portraitists like Arnold Newman or Yousuf Karsh. But I wrestled for a while with how effective and resonant his distinctive and deceptively simple studio style was with subjects outside of his well-known celebrities, and how well his images worked outside of magazine layouts.

I've seen a few of his portraits reproduced large in the last year, and have more recently come to admire just how talented a portraitist he was...how much depth, and how much of a unique story he could obtain out of even famous subjects who typically resist the gaze of the camera or manipulate it to reinforce their existing public image. Sometimes this gaze seems almost too frank, too cruel, but with some of the most famous and powerful subjects, it was a more penetrating gaze than any written biography or profile or expose could provide. (He certainly elicited polar reactions regarding his style: one of my classmates in a portraiture class considered his methods for drawing out a subject crass and manipulative, while another friend of mine loved only his harshest and most withering portraits)

One of my favorite examples of just how amazingly Avedon could work magic is with his portrait of Henry Kissinger, one of the 20th century's oddest and most emotionally (and intellectually) bankrupt figures. Avedon has some very eloquent text about this portrait and some broader observations about portraiture on his website, but oddly, I can't find the actual photo on the site. I think to honor Avedon, I'll let his words (full text available here) and the very revealing portrait speak for themselves:

" ...As I led him to the camera, he said a puzzling thing. He said, "Be kind to me." I wish there had been time to ask him exactly what he meant, although it's probably clear.

Now, Kissinger knows a lot about manipulation, so to hear his concern about being manipulated really made me think. What did he mean? What does it really mean to "be kind" in a photograph? Did Kissinger want to look wiser, warmer, more sincere than he suspected he was? Do photographic portraits have different responsibilities to the sitter than portraits in paint or prose? Isn't it trivializing and demeaning to make someone look wise, noble (which is easy to do), or even conventionally beautiful when the thing itself is so much more complicated, contradictory, and therefore fascinating?

Was he hoping that the photograph would reveal a perfect surface? Or is it just possible that he could have wished - as I would have if I were being photographed - that "being kind" would involve allowing something more complicated about me to burn through: my anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, my isolation. If all these things are aspects of character, would I not, as an artist, be unkind to treat Kissinger as a merely noble face? Does the perfect surface have anything to do with the artistic integrity of a portrait?

... So who is Henry Kissinger? And what, or who, is this photograph? Is it just a shadow representation of a man? Or is it closer to a doppelgänger, a likeness with its own life, an inexact twin whose afterlife may overcome and replace the original?

When I see my pictures in a museum and watch the way people look at my pictures, and then turn to the pictures myself and see how alive the images are, they seem to have little to do with me. They have a life of their own. Like the actors in Pirandello, or in Woody Allen's movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, when the actors leave the screen and join the audience. They have confrontations with the viewers.

Photography is completely different from every other form of art. I don't really remember the day when I stood behind my camera with Henry Kissinger on the other side. I'm sure he doesn't remember it either. But this photograph is here now to prove that no amount of kindness on my part could make this photograph mean exactly what he - or even I - wanted it to mean. It's a reminder of the wonder and terror that is a photograph."

Avedonkissinger

12:49 AM | Permalink

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Comments

avedon was my number one favorite artist. he really inspired me to learn more about art and to accept the human nature of art. i really enjoy looking at his photos, they look so real, there are so many details and different cultures and his paintings are unique and i guess thats why they are so interesting to look at.

Posted by: Chrystal Traylor at Dec 6, 2005 3:53:34 PM

Hello from Greece.
I like your blog very much and i'd like to know more about you!

Best
Antonis

Posted by: Antonis at Dec 5, 2010 4:11:56 AM