“Youth never moves me,” said Richard Avedon (1923-2004). “I seldom see anything very beautiful in a young face.” This may sound strange, coming from one of the most celebrated fashion photographers of the twentieth century, but it pinpoints that quality which sets Avedon apart. He had a ‘hard’ definition of beauty, as opposed to the rather obvious kind peddled by the mass media. Like Keats, in his Ode on a Grecian Urn, he seemed to believe that truth and beauty were inseparable.
As an example of what he found beautiful, Avedon mentioned the downward curve of Somerset Maugham’s lips – a sight that might be more commonly interpreted as ‘dour’. Maugham famously described himself as being “in the very first row of the second-raters”, and the photograph captures the writer’s melancholy acceptance of his own mediocrity.
The portrait of Maugham is not included in the exhibition, Richard Avedon: People, at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, but there are plenty of other images that testify to the photographer’s unflinching search for a truthful likeness. Although he rejected romantic clichés about going beyond appearances, or getting under the skin of a personality, Avedon’s best photos are full of surprising insights.
This is a perfect show for the NPG, but it is disappointing that there is no catalogue and only the smallest selection of postcards. In marketing terms it is a wasted opportunity.
One work that does exist as a postcard is a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, taken on May 6, 1957. There is a sadness in this picture that belies the golden coiffure and the glittering sequined dress with its plunging neckline. Monroe looks inert, as if she is weighing up her status as an object rather than a human being. The point is made even more forcefully by juxtaposing this image with a photograph taken two days earlier, showing Monroe with her arm draped around her husband of those days, playwright, Arthur Miller. She snuggles against his cheek, with a big grin, while he comes across as a model of masculine smugness.
In a glance we can savour the public and private sides of Marilyn Monroe. Alongside the ‘sad’ Marilyn there is a dazzling 1964 photo of Elizabeth Taylor, with her hair done up with looping cock feathers. This was a boom time in Taylor’s career. She had just starred in Cleopatra – still, in relative terms, the most expensive movie ever made. Her scandalous affair with Richard Burton, which had been denounced by the Vatican, was now legitimised through marriage.
In Avedon’s photo we see the confident actress who was routinely voted the most beautiful woman in the world, while commanding the highest fees ever paid in Hollywood. She appears to lean into the shot, daring us to find anything that is not completely desirable.
Everything one needs to know about Hollywood lies somewhere between the distracted expression on Monroe’s face and the self-possession of Taylor. Avedon makes no explicit criticisms, but leaves plenty of room for reflection.
The New York critic, Hilton Kramer, once pointed out that an exhibition by Avedon had “a very definite politics”, at odds with the world of glamour and celebrity from which he drew most of his subject matter. To the conservative Kramer, it was “another mode of romance” disguised as candour – a sentimental fixation with radical causes and outsiders. If he stopped short of calling Avedon a hypocrite it is because the photos have an intrinsic power that transcends any political affiliations.
This sense that Avedon is a double agent in the world of the rich and famous, is one of the reasons why his work is so persistently edgy, even when he is snapping a starlet, a socialite or a designer frock.
Born into a Jewish family in the Bronx, Avedon’s father was a self-made entrepreneur who owned a Manhattan department store. He grew up on the wrong side of the tracks, but with a familiarity with the fashion business. His early photographs were taken in the Merchant Marine, but soon after leaving the service in the mid-1940s, he began shooting for Harper’s Bazaar. By the time Diana Vreeland recruited him for Vogue, in 1966, he was established as one of the world’s leading fashion photographers.
Avedon’s reputation as a portraitist developed in parallel to the fashion pictures, throughout the 1950s, but there was always an aspect of his work that defied categorisation. While most of the pictures in the NPG survey may be described as portraits, there are images of New York street life of the 1940s that Avedon took as part of a commission from Life magazine. He worked on this for five years, before deciding to return the advance and keep the photos for himself. They were eventually published in his book, An Autobiography (1993).
These grainy, oblique images of people are totally unlike the studio-based works for which Avedon is known, but they were apparently of deep, personal significance. His other significant departure from the norm came with a book called Nothing Personal (1964), made in collaboration with designer, Marvin Israel; and writer, James Baldwin, with whom Avedon went to school.
It was said that one of the aims of this publication was to quietly interrogate the “institutionalised racism” of American society. It showed images of poor blacks in a mental asylum in Louisiana, scenes of mixed bathing in Santa Monica, along with highly confronting portraits of famous and ordinary people. This project proved controversial, with commentators accusing Avedon of “showbiz moralism” and “radical chic”.
The photographer was reputedly so taken aback by these attacks that he stayed away from portraiture for five years. The question, both then and now, is to what extent can someone so at home in the world of the A-list make political statements on behalf of the poorest part of society? It’s a question that still attaches itself to the activities of actors such as George Clooney and Angelina Jolie, although they seem like beacons of reason alongside that self-aggrandising saviour of humanity, Bono.
In retrospect, Avedon’s foray into politics seems less of a contradiction than it may have appeared in 1964. When one looks back over the totality of his work there are numerous images that reveal his sympathies for all states of humanity. If he preferred to speak through pictures rather than words, this is the prerogative of the true artist. If he continued to make his money from high-end fashion shots and advertising spreads, it testifies to his expertise as a businessman, not to his cynicism. Neither should we under-estimate the creativity displayed in even the most glamorous magazine shots such as the nude portrait of Nastassja Kinski entwined with a python – sadly not included in this show.
One of the outstanding portraits in Nothing Personal was the 1963 portrait of William Casby, former slave. This angular face, with its bright, alert eyes seems to leap out from the wall. For French critic, Roland Barthes, the image was a mask that conveyed the social fact of slavery in an “absolutely pure” fashion. Whatever that means.
Included in the same collection was Avedon’s portrait of writer, Dorothy Parker. While Casby’s fixed expression suggests a personality that has beaten off every challenge fate has thrown in its path, Parker’s features seem to have collapsed under the strain of the literary life. The bags under the eyes and stained teeth show the dissipated state into which Parker had fallen, as she dissolved her famous wit in alcohol. It’s a portrait of a once-dazzling flame on the verge of being extinguished.
For a study in contrasts one need only turn from Parker’s ravaged features to the full frontal nude of dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, on the opposite wall. Anybody who sees Nureyev as a perfect physical specimen on the basis of this photograph should read Avedon’s account of the shoot, in which Nureyev stands, raises his arm, and his penis follows. “An orgy of one,” Avedon called it.
Avedon’s last major series, The American West, proved as controversial as Nothing Personal. Responding to a commission from the Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth, Avedon set out to photograph ordinary working people in the West, but his detractors felt he was deliberately focusing on the dark side. Others argued that images such as the portrait of a freckle-faced twelve-year-old girl in dungarees looked too much like fashion photos. For his part, Avedon was happy to admit that his vision of the West was an “opinion” rather than a fact, but felt he had been compassionate rather than critical.
In his lifetime Avedon worked hard on his own image, wanting always to be perceived in a positive manner. The official reassessment has continued after the artist’s death, downplaying the commercial aspects of his career. Whether or not we accept this version, it seems clear that today and into the future, Avedon’s work belongs to the museums not the glossy magazines.
Richard Avedon: People, National Portrait Gallery of Australia, Canberra, August 23 – November 24, 2013
Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, September 7, 2013