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Richard Avedon The Man Behind the Faces

Who's Who, Redefined

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By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 15, 2008

Tomorrow through Friday, a Washington Post writer will examine a particular photo from the show "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power " at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

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Richard Avedon photographed celebrities: presidents and generals, great artists and heads of industry. And he photographed nonentities: no-name soldiers and protesters and secretaries. What makes him one of the greatest portraitists of the 20th century is that, when he's at his very best, you can't tell which is which. Forget the old idea that portraiture's about revealing what a sitter has done, or some kind of "deeper self." Avedon goes even deeper than that, down to the banal personhood that we all share. He reveals his sitters as being simply there , and real. He gives them a compelling authenticity, even if he never claims to reveal the "authentic" them.

Of course, Avedon needs all the tricks in his tool kit to simulate such unadulterated, unplanned states of being.

"Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power," which opened at the Corcoran Gallery of Art on Saturday, lets us watch the photographer achieve his no-frills portrait style. The show's 231 portraits stretch from 1950, when Avedon was 27 and just launching his career as the world's greatest fashion photographer, to shots done not long before his death in September 2004, when the 81-year-old celebrity was felled by a stroke in the middle of a New Yorker assignment.

The show's not as tight as it could be. "Power" is interpreted so widely it covers playwright Clifford Odets (the 1950 image) as well as an average couple from a gun show in Nevada (one of Avedon's last shots). It seems to include everyone who could possibly assert or be touched by authority, which means there's no one it ex cludes. A better title might have been "Portraits of People," if that weren't redundant.

The project's also risky for the Corcoran. The impoverished gallery has a long-standing reputation for pandering to ticket buyers; hosting an overstuffed survey of yet another celebrity photographer -- after last year's Ansel Adams and Annie Leibovitz events -- looks perilously close to selling out. Art lovers groaned when the Avedon show was announced. Only the hard work and scholarship of curator Paul Roth -- his catalogue essay, though more focused than the show, has 264 footnotes -- has made the risk pay off. There's an Avedon here we haven't seen much of before, and it's the one the photographer himself seemed most committed to.

I met Avedon a half-dozen or so times (he was the close friend of a sibling). When I praised the fashion photos I thought were his greatest work, he disagreed. He preferred his images of what-you-see-is-what-you-get reality.

The Avedons at the Corcoran give us the real Henry Kissinger. The authentic Andrew Young. The unadorned Ronald Reagan. The actual Duke and Duchess of Windsor. But also the authentic Abraham Rosenthal, Pete Rozelle and Evelyn Lincoln.

Who? Precisely. The crucial thing about Avedon's approach is he's an equal-opportunity authenticator. Here you are, in the presence of someone who's supposed to be the greatest recorder of the nation's great and mighty, and you can't tell the players without a scorecard.

Look at Avedon's group portrait of the Chicago Seven, famous opponents of the Vietnam War, presented larger than life on one wall of the Corcoran. (The huge, unframed photos are the exact prints that were on the wall at Avedon's landmark Marlborough Gallery show in New York in 1975.) Then turn your back on them to look at a companion image of the 11 men in the Mission Council, who led that war. You're struck not by the two groups' fundamental differences but by their underlying sameness. Strip away the beards and jeans and slouches of the protesters, and the suits and uniforms and ramrod backs of the hawks -- Avedon's portraits ask you to do such stripping -- and you're left with 18 people whose shared but flawed humanity is all that really counts. In Avedon's portraits, it's not what or who his sitters are that matters. It's that they are.

Back in 1975, this newspaper asked Avedon if he planned on photographing politicians. He said no: "There has to be a connection between me and the people I photographed. . . . I have to get the sense that we're all in the same boat." What he came to realize is that every single one of us is in that boat, and that his pictures could convey that fact.

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