The photographers are going, some of the really big ones, at least the ones who defined a world as it is seen and imagined by those of us with too many magazine subscriptions. (Magazine addictions? Maybe.)
It was through their lenses that many of us acquired stark, magazine ways of considering the real world in front of us: Henri Cartier-Bresson, the holy spirit of expressive photojournalism, died old and happy in France this summer. Helmut Newton, the pervy visionary of fashion shoots, had a heart attack in January in his rental car, while pulling out of the Chateau Marmont hotel in Beverly Hills, just days after the death of Francesco Scavullo, who'd given us the Cosmo girl and her plunging neckline. Herb Ritts died young, nearly two years ago, from HIV-related illness, leaving behind the coolness of all those Rolling Stone celebrities against all those deserts, pools, beaches, skies.
Now Richard Avedon, dead at a still prolific 81: Artist? Journalist? Fashion tastemaker?
"I've worked out of a series of no's," he said in 1994, and now helpfully quotes himself on his Web site. "No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no's force me to the 'yes.' I have a white background. I have the person I'm interested in and the thing that happens between us."
Certainly a legend. Only in the last decade could the impulses of art and commerce and editorial agree with him that there is a merit to manipulating the levers of all three. He summons August Sander and Madison Avenue at the same time, navigating between portraiture, comment and, say, Calvin Klein perfume.
Yes, Avedon spent five years making portraits of everyday citizens of the American West in the Reagan era, and never did they look more flown-over, more craggy, more hardworkingly exotic. (And never did anything else make him seem more New York, clinically visiting an artistic nobility upon the poor.) Oil workers, cattle ranchers, a beekeeper covered in bees. The minute that was done, he also wrote the script and conceived the look of Klein's ad campaign for the new Obsession perfume in 1985. You may remember those blankly forlorn people trapped in a black-and-white world, the vacuous male lover who said such things as: "She loved me and she's gone. Did I invent her?" (She whispers, to the television camera: "Love is child's play, once you've known Obsession.")
The portraits he made hung in museums -- Avedon retrospective upon Avedon retrospective -- throughout his long career. But for most of us they dwelt in coffee-table books and magazines -- notably his series called "The Family," the portraits of the Mob-evoking powers-that-be that took up most of a special issue of Rolling Stone in the Bicentennial election season of '76; also The New Yorker, which chose him as staff photographer when the time finally came, in 1992, for that magazine to run any photographs at all.
An Avedon portrait brought an instant aura of importance and legitimacy to its subject; the picture said you matter now, because you're news, or because you're something people either like to stare at or talk about, but quietly so. If Avedon was taking your portrait, then you'd arrived. Even if you milked cows for a living.
There was something very New York about it -- that sophisticated, almost antiseptic wonder. So it became known as the "New York school" of photography. But there was a dissonance to it all, sometimes genius, sometimes aggravating: "This is a fictional West," he acknowledged, in an of-course-you-know sort of way, when his "In the American West" exhibition toured the country, stopping in Washington in 1985. "I don't think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne." (Whatever his pictures meant, wrote The Post's art critic, Paul Richard, Avedon's work "confounds Ansel Adams, but embraces Diane Arbus.")
The million-dollar ad campaigns never stopped -- for clothes and also for the whole Avedon style, which made everyone realize how much better (and worse) we all look when stripped of color, stripped of props, stripped of background. His current crop includes work this year for discount retailer H&M, Dior and the new Levi's campaign.
He was on assignment in Texas for the New Yorker in these last few days. He collapsed from a brain hemorrhage and died yesterday at Methodist Hospital in San Antonio. He had, according to a magazine spokeswoman, spent months shooting portraits of people through the prism of politics. (Or maybe politics through the prism of people.) He was shooting politicians and voters, and it was a classic Avedon undertaking of breadth and format: A catalogue of faces and bodies, wearing whatever they wear out there, stripped of all context except their clothing, standing before his ubiquitous, unending roll of white studio paper. Rest assured they were getting the same treatment: In front of Avedon's camera (an older 8x10 Deardorf mounted on a tripod), with that floodlight hard-blasting against all that empty white or gray. Laid bare.
He famously included the black frame of the edge of the negative. This made clear that the only crop had been in his mind's eye, like a scene in cinema. An Avedon photograph came to be regarded as both bafflingly and pleasingly iconic and his techniques much-copied by other photographers seeking to reduce their subjects to singular souls. It was about a moment, of being apart from the mass of people, ordinary in spite of their extraordinariness (celebrity, wealth, ambition), no more or less vulnerable than the rest of us. Sometimes it backfired with critics struggling to decipher his intent:
"Rose Kennedy," wrote Henry Allen, The Post's Pulitzer Prize-winning critic, reviewing the retrospective of "The Family 1976" at the National Gallery in 1993, "stands before us as living proof of something you'd rather not talk about. I have lived my life and I am Rose Kennedy, she seems to be saying. Her hands hang at her sides. They are festooned with liver spots. She is sad, puzzled and small. She looks angry and resigned at the same time, as if she were posing for a going-away picture taken by a servant she never really liked."
"They have no backs," the writer Adam Gopnik observed of Avedon's subjects, in an essay from "Evidence 1944-1994," still another Avedon retrospect, this time at the Whitney Museum of American Art a decade ago. "They share an unnatural, middle-of-the-highway, this-avenue-closed-to-traffic frontality. People face forward, thrust forward, toward the spectator. . . . Avedon is a director of pictures. All his occasions are performances; all his subjects, actors; all his images, scenes."
Which parallels his own celebrityhood. The Fred Astaire-Audrey Hepburn movie "Funny Face" (1957) was more or less about him, and the era in which he shot for Harper's Bazaar. (He served as a consultant to the screenplay.) Audrey poses for Fred so that she may run away to Paris to hang out with French intellectuals. Already Avedon had fame, and it grew for another five decades. If people wrote about photography, then they wrote about Avedon -- Susan Sontag, Janet Malcolm, Roland Barthes. And Avedon seemed to love writers, getting Truman Capote to write the text accompanying "Observations," his first big photo book. (The first big photo book most people of that era remember buying.) He also got James Baldwin, an old high-school chum, to write about the portraits of "Portraits," his 1964 photo book of America in the civil-rights era.
The word has been written on Avedon and his pictures. And written, and written. Add to that his own articulate knack for writing about himself and the ongoing debate of what photography was to art, and art to photography. How fraught it all was, as when Avedon shuttled to Washington to make a portrait of Henry Kissinger: "As I led him to the camera, he said a puzzling thing," Avedon writes on his Web site. "He said, 'Be kind to me.'
"When I see my pictures in a museum and watch the way people look at my pictures, and then turn to the pictures myself and see how alive the images are, they seem to have little to do with me. They have a life of their own. . . . Photography is completely different from every other form of art. I don't really remember the day when I stood behind my camera with Henry Kissinger on the other side. I'm sure he doesn't remember it either. But this photograph is here now to prove that no amount of kindness on my part could make this photograph mean exactly what he -- or even I -- wanted it to mean. It's a reminder of the wonder and terror that is a photograph."
The Avedon photograph became its own moment. Very often the portrait was of a person having his Avedon moment, thinking to himself, well, here I am and here is Avedon, so I've reached some point, some pinnacle. But his work caught something else, something we hadn't seen before. It worked that wonder and terror for all it was worth.