Dwight D. Eisenhower

In a 1964 portrait, Dwight D. Eisenhower is shown in an expression seemingly at odds with his image.
In a 1964 portrait, Dwight D. Eisenhower is shown in an expression seemingly at odds with his image. (Copyright 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation)
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By Henry Allen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 18, 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.

If utter reversals in the name of revelation and truth are good enough for God, they're good enough for Richard Avedon, the late photographer and Manhattan figure whose "Portraits of Power" are on view at the Corcoran Gallery.

In the manner of Jehovah making the crooked straight and the rough places plain, Avedon makes the confident look doubtful, the dour delighted, the guilty innocent, the heroic silly, and the charming peckish. And he persuades us that that in doing so, he has shown us The Truth.

Renata Adler, an Avedon friend who wrote the introduction to the show's catalogue, says he possessed both power and magic, and reports his claim that he had saved dying people by photographing them. A god, indeed, but if so, a very perverse one, a trickster god.

None of his pictures, to me, is more alive with trickster paradox than his portrait of Dwight Eisenhower at 74, three years out of the Oval Office, 20 years after he ordered the Allied landings at Normandy. He had retired to a farm in Gettysburg, Pa. He fished and golfed, and played with his grandchildren.

Godlike, Avedon smote him. This victorious general and much-loved president who presided over peace and economic boom, this hero who helped save civilization with his intelligence, political intuition and stupendous labor, is rendered by Avedon as a bewildered and exhausted loser, resigned and mean, hardened but wistful, both pathetic and apathetic.

Of course, Avedon was not apt to get complaints about this portrayal from his admirers among the culture-bearing elite that lionized -- and later demi-deified -- him as truth-bringer, the peeler-away of veneers. They would be particularly content with the peeling of public lives, particularly those of their adversaries. In this case, they were an elite that tended, curiously, to think of Eisenhower as "stupid," largely, it seemed, because he played golf.

At last -- the real Ike! This picture's truth was self-evident to them, merely by the fact that it differed so miraculously from other photographs in Ike's much-photographed career.

In those, Eisenhower had one of the great grins in the history of American politics, an unqualified crescent of congratulation for a triumph you shared with him. When pictured unsmiling, he looked at you dead-on with a Westerner's eyes that said he was playing fair, but for real money. (John Kennedy, by contrast, didn't look at you from pictures as much as he watched you watching him.)

Avedon took away both grin and level gaze. Ike's mouth is tired, his eyes glance to the side. This is the Eisenhower that Eisenhower-haters believed in. And this is the Avedon who liked to believe that his veneer-peelings were his great work, as opposed to the bright, spare, energetic and ingeniously composed fashion photography that had made him famous -- work in which he was creating veneers, not peeling them.

Is it possible he didn't understand that with Eisenhower and so many other powerful subjects, he wasn't revealing inner truth but only creating another sort of fashionable veneer, one that depended on its perversity for its appeal?

© 2008 The Washington Post Company