A Snapshot of the Man Who Would Become 41

By Philip Kennicott
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Each day this week, a Washington Post writer examines a particular photo from the show "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power" at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

In 1976, when Richard Avedon included him in "The Family" portfolio, George Bush didn't need the H.W. in his name to distinguish him from his son George W. Bush. If you had said, "That's 41, not 43," people would have assumed you were talking in code, not a bad surmise given that George H.W. Bush was, at the time, the head of the Central Intelligence Agency.

The future president fills out the frame no more or less than the average subject in this series. Avedon's white space, which the photographer called the "void" -- the existential nothingness from which we come and into which we disappear -- surrounds him on both sides. Like others in "The Family," Bush's head barely grazes the top of the frame.

In one of Avedon's early layouts of the series, Bush was paired opposite Katharine Graham, then publisher of this newspaper. The juxtaposition (which he changed before the photographs appeared in Rolling Stone magazine) is striking. Each fills roughly the same amount of the void, but Graham takes up a lot more space. She is a powerful presence, staring down the photographer. By contrast, Bush seems like a schoolboy, hands in his pockets, shoulders sagging, head slightly cocked. His eyebrows give him the questioning, impenetrable look of a little dog.

Can we see the subject neutrally? If we like Bush, we see a humble, genial man, which is how Avedon says he found him during the photo shoot. But it's also possible to see Bush the Wimp, as Ronald Reagan is supposed to have labeled him. Or Bush the East Coast scion of power, with a school tie and jacket that scream Ivy League. Avedon's deliberate objectivity (or opacity) leaves us befuddled: Is this real humility, or a familiarity with power so deeply embedded in the man that he doesn't need to project confidence?

It also shows how smart the title "The Family" would turn out to be. Suggested by the writer Renata Adler, "The Family" -- which included people from across the political spectrum -- is deliberately ambiguous, as likely to bring to mind the Mafia as any happy notion that our leaders are all dedicated to a mutual project of civic nurturing. Of course, seeing George Bush without his initials reminds us of a more specific family -- the one that has dominated American politics for more than a quarter-century. Sometimes, to get in The Family, all you have to do is be part of the family.

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