As an instrument of social hierarchy and aristocratic ideal the mirror was the first object that fed our narcissistic need for recognition and for mastering reflection.
It was but a step toward a revolution that ended in the late nineteenth century with the triumph of photography.
This new technology and its ability to record history as it was happening echoed all around the world and from that day to this iconic photographs clearly demonstrate the landmark events that define our humanity and modernity.
Presenting an in-depth overview of the considerable achievements of renowned 20th century American photographer Richard Avedon (1923-2004), an outstanding exhibition of black and white photography is currently showing in Melbourne.
Richard Avedon People opened on the 6th December 2014 at The Ian Potter Museum of Art gallery at Melbourne University and is being held in collaboration with The National Portrait Gallery, Canberra and Richard Avedon Foundation, New York, established by the artist.
The Richard Avedon Foundation‘s exhibition coordinator Katrina Dumas came from New York to assist National Portrait Gallery‘s senior curator Dr Christopher Chapman remount the exhibition in its new space in Melbourne. I was invited to meet them both to view the exhibition and discuss Richard Avedon and his works.
For me it was a great privilege to enjoy such a moment of reflection. I have long been an admirer of Avedon’s work and lover of photographic art per se. It was also good to meet two people passionate about Avedon his life and work, who generously shared their thoughts and observations.
The works themselves retain a freshness and vitality that’s emboldening.
Dr Chapman revealed he was eager to present Avedon’s works in Australia as a unique succinct snapshot of the man and his considerable achievements. He chose an outstanding selection of black and white portraiture 1944 – 2004 that prove Avedon had a remarkable ability to capture the essence of his subject with intelligence, sincerity, honesty, tenderness, frankness, dignity, grace and drama.
He has incorporated readily recognizable imagery such as the delightful photograph of Marilyn Monroe and her husband playwright Arthur Miller into the show. Then there are individual photographs of 20th century icons Bob Dylan, Elizabeth Taylor, The Beatles – John, Paul, George and Ringo, as well as ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev.
These are arranged alongside an extraordinary group of ‘unknown’ people, some of which have not been shown before.
The objective is to draw the viewer into a place where they can have an upfront and personal encounter with someone they either relate to or strongly identify with for a reason known only to the viewer.
Avedon was always ‘fascinated by photography’s capacity for suggesting the personality and evoking the life of his subjects’.^ The images are direct, confronting, emotional, spellbinding, providing a memorable portrait of a man drawn towards defining that interior universe to which we are all drawn, attracted by life’s complexities and contradictions; implying something much more an simple emotion.
The some eighty works on display both charm and disarm as they demonstrate Avedon’s masterly technique, revealing with great clarity just how creative and profoundly imaginative he was.
Through the art of photographic portraiture Avedon exploited the evocative powers of his sitters and their facial particularities while preserving a beautiful bond of intimacy.
He had the capacity to see something in his mind’s eye and trust he would be able to imagine it into existence.
This fine selection also clearly demonstrates Avedon’s ongoing legacy, for that of being an original thinker, one who reflected that which our own gaze could not see.
Richard Avedon was only 22 when he began working as a freelance photographer, becoming known for his ‘resourcefulness and inventiveness, manipulating his works to serve his own ‘stylistic and narrative purposes.
The style he developed projects a feeling of revelation, one that can be likened to seeing someone you know stripped bare of emotions.
It was when he was serving as a Photographer’s Mate Second Class in the US Merchant Marines, that Avedon discovered that his work capturing the images of those going to war, led to him believing he could, and indeed had, become a professional photographer.
And so he made it his career, despite being told by his father he was joining an ‘army of illiterates’.
He enlisted in a class at the New School for Social Research, where he made an immediate bond with his teacher designer Alexey Brodovitch, who just happened to be the art director at America’s favourite fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar.
Brodovitch would prove to be a powerful influence and ally for his rising star, aiding and abetting his rapid advancement. Recognising his enormous talent he encouraged Avedon to cross boundaries and think beyond the square as he boldly went where no photographer had gone before.
Usually a portrait is the representation of an identifiable individual and indeed Avedon photographed many famous people at the height of their celebrity status. To that end he captured influential artists, actors, filmmakers and politicians as well as the fashionable people in high society
Avedon was also however fascinated with those not so readily familiar, street vendors, civil rights advocates and musicians all received his treatment. He gave some of these grand ‘scale, ensuring their images took on the presence of a full-blown society portrait.
He especially admired faces that were either mesmerizingly beautiful or full of character with exotic or interesting features. He sought out an evasive charisma one that only he recognised, which captured and held his attention.
Avedon stripped away excess ornament with simple fascinating poses and classic techniques, fading the background into a linen-like surface forming a still quietly animated but neutral interesting backdrop such as the sea.
Alternatively he brought the background into sharp detail ensuring it formed an integral aspect of a surface that surrounded and complimented the character of his sitter, dependant on who they were and how he wanted to portray them.
Avedon with Brodovitch’s influence became especially renowned for changing the face of fashion.
He worked throughout his career at Harper’s Bazaar where he finally left after a disagreement over a collaboration, then with Vogue and eventually, at the serious end of his life, The New Yorker.
His image of style, beauty and culture was compelling and in the process he also transformed the art of fashion photography, so much so that Hollywood came knocking and made a movie inspired by his story.
The film Funny Face, a huge hit in 1957 starred Fred Astaire as photographer ‘Dick Avery’ and the gamin Audrey Hepburn as Jo Stockton, a young woman who radiated that rare combination of beauty, spirit and intelligence, qualities Avedon admired.
Fashion photography was a way of marketing clothing, but it was also much more, it was the embodiment of the dynamic new lifestyle post war that everyone was seeking.
It celebrated life; laughing, smiling, roller skating, ice skating, dancing, larking about while wearing wonderful clothes.
It highlighted Paris as the central city where that was happening, one that was so infectious the whole world wanted to join in.
Dior defined a whole new look, one today’s youthful designers clamour to clone; and the perfect timing for a fashion photographer to begin his career.
Dovima (1927 – 1990) was the highest paid model of her time and he photographed her dramatically with elephants, wearing a black and white evening dress by a new young designer working at the house of Christian Dior, whose name was Yves Saint-Laurent.
This amazing shot captured at Cirque d’Hiver, Paris in August 1955 resonated with women around the world for generations and still does today. It also inspired the frenzy for fashionably wearing black and white.
The exhibition should do well here in Melbourne where the catch cry seems to be ‘wear anything as long as it is black’. This is not a ‘passing’ trend; indeed wearing black is infused into the culture of this town where creativity is integral to its existence.
Avedon would enjoy the comparison; he constantly seized opportunities to project an image that would hopefully transform people’s perceptions, especially those who were at the forefront of their professional lives.
He was always interested in major events, such as those taking place around the American Civil Rights movement and Vietnam War. The first of many retrospectives of his work was held at the Smithsonian Institution in 1962.
The archival material Miss Dumas has to work with today at the Avedon Foundation must be always captivating and enriching. She has an insider’s view on the quality and quantity of his works and a great deal of material to still unravel about the man and his art.
She noted the foundation are digitizing many of Avedon’s images, but the archive is so large it certainly sounded as if it will take more than her lifetime.
Interestingly Richard Avedon was dubbed Poet Laureate of New York City High Schools in 1941. For me there is poetic and enigmatic quality hard to define, most especially in his unseen works.
Dr Chapman gave me the clue…Richard Avedon, when he was in the process of building his fame through fashion, was also quietly photographing and storing away a portfolio of very intimate portraits of people across all stratums of society and the glaring cultural divides of his time.
Today these wondrous works are a record of societal, community and cultural development and, as Dr Chapman pointed out, some were his personal favourite Avedon works.
They are a select group of portraits dating from 1949.
I was drawn in immediately, as they commence with an image of a blonde girl aged 5, rugged up keeping warm in her coat.
The connection was made because in 1949 when it was taken I was also five years of age and so this little girl was a contemporary and I remembered a coat I had that was similar.
It brought my own images of post war Australia in the late 40’s early 50’s racing back into my mind like snapshots of times that were lean but happy.
The ideal of enjoying and engaging with family life had been reinforced by the hardships of wartime and the terrible cultural and racial struggles that ensued.
These images, integral to this very powerful thought provoking show, had been commissioned from Avedon by Life magazine for a sum of $25,000 a princely amount at that time.
They reminded me of the Daoist advice about composition – Ying and Yang, the two opposing forces at the heart of Chinese philosophy, where the rough and masculine yang is balanced by the soft and feminine.*
To create an outward expression of a man’s inner strength or humanity is highly contradictory. It demands you are at one with the ebb and flow of the natural order of things where everything is in constant flux and contradiction.
So to go forward, you must step back, to gain you have to let go, and to win you must lose.
It’s an introspective philosophy, one that has a ‘belief in, and reliance on, human intuition’.
After spending some nine months on the streets of New York photographing with candour the broken still shattered post depression post war society endeavouring to reclaim their lives, Avedon quietly and without any fuss gave the money back.
He then spirited the images away until later in his career. Avedon’s intuition it seems was telling him now was not the time.
Those seeking inspiration and hope for a new future at that time did not really want to be reminded of the past. Also, they more than likely wouldn’t have made the impact he hoped for, bringing attention to the causes he felt deeply about. So he banished the works to his archive.
He was enjoying his fame through the world of fashion and controversial subjects and perhaps wouldn’t have wanted to disappoint his fans or himself to the point he fell from favour.
These much quieter contemplative works struck a chord with me.
Of all the images I particularly responded to was an image of Italian film director, Michelangelo Antonioni with his wife Enrica, taken at Rome in 1993. Here was a man who challenged conventions and how movie makers approached storytelling, defining a “…cinema of possibilities”/+
The composition of this is striking, the enigmatic Mona Lisa type of smile and the subtle sideways glance Antonioni is engaging in with his wife very telling; a story of its own.
At first glance it may seem quite ‘ordinary’ but on close inspection, in the flesh so to speak, it is extraordinary, like so many other of Avedon’s quieter works.
She is posing in a seductive, striking way The curves of her body as it presses into his arm are echoed in the curves of the waves in her hair. Her profile is proud, loving, earnest as she looks at this man integral to her life, whom she so obviously adores, without restriction. He has her hand quietly clutched in his claiming possession.
This image for me however brought home the importance of relationships and how the bonds we form in life, despite Avedon only capturing them as a surface snapshot, take us far beyond what the eye can see, into a world of great complexity where we encounter human emotions and experiences.
Today we are far more willing to accept that past present and future are irrevocably linked and know that if we ignore the past when inventing the future we are doomed to make the same mistakes again.
To that end these wonderful works were not released until Avedon judged that for him the time was right.
He published them in 1992 in his book An Autobiography and by then the world had changed a great deal and so had he.
For Richard Avedon fashion was fading and his iconic life beginning.
By publishing he ensured the works would always be accessible, conveying to us as they had a moral dimension as well as expressing his own ‘…profound concern with the emotional and social freedom of the individual’*
At the heart of Richard Avedon and his immense success capturing the essence of these sitters and the depth of sadness of their world with all its anxieties, insecurities and uncertainties about life at that time and with such elegance meant that only the purity of his style remains.
In every case as you take them into your heart the sitter is eloquently telling you their story frankly and with clarity of purpose; one that is all about a distillation of truth, confirming Richard Avedon’s genius for capturing a moment as art.
You must not think my glance is quick
To shift from this to that, from here to there,
Because I am most usually where
The way is strangest and the wonders thick,
Because when wind is wildest and the bay
Swoops madly upward and the gulls are few
And I am doing as I want to do,
Leaving the town to go my aimless way;
You must not think because I am the kind
Who always shunned security and such
As bother the responsible of mind
That I shall never amount to much;
I know my drifting will not prove a loss,
For mine is a rolling stone that gathered moss**
Carolyn McDowall, The Culture Concept Circle, 2014
6 December – 15th March 2015
Curated by Christopher Chapman
Swanston Street, Melbourne
In line with the Australian Curriculum, The National Portrait Gallery, Canberra has designed a teacher’s resource to assist inspire enquiry and exploration of the life of this extraordinary man.
* Kuo Hsi (fl. 1060-75)
**Wanderlust by Richard Avedon