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Unblinking Avedon: He Made Us See Ourselves

By Frank Van Riper
Special to Camera Works

If Cartier-Bresson, who predeceased him by only two months, was the inspiration to several decades of photojournalists, surely Richard Avedon, dead at 81 but working to the last, was the inspiration for nearly everyone else who ever held a camera.

With the possible exception of Irving Penn, whose massive expertise also includes the still life, Avedon was a master of nearly all other forms of photography: portrait, fashion, fine art and commercial (with a not-always-obvious demarcation dividing them.)

He exploded into view when he was only in his twenties, discovered and thrust into the world of magazine fashion photography – a world that he remade into a new, if not entirely his own, image. First for Harper's Bazaar and later for Vogue, Avedon brought an excitement and visual tension to this world, guided initially by an autocratic, chain-smoking – and brilliant – Russian emigre Alexey Brodovitch , Bazaar's legendary art director. It was Brodovitch who urged Avedon to think of a photograph as a series of graphic components, and who set the young photographer loose to employ blur, motion and other effects to dramatize his well-clothed subjects. But Avedon also brought to his location work a talent not always commented upon: the ability he shared with Cartier-Bresson and other canny street shooters to seize and record the Decisive Moment.

Witness one of his best known fashion pictures: "Dovima With Elephants," made in Paris in 1955 for Harper's Bazaar. The model, in ankle-length Dior gown, poses incongruously between two huge circus elephants, all three standing on a bed of straw against a plain background. The model's elegant willowy frame would have provided contrast enough to the great, rough-skinned elephants, but there is something else that creates even more of a frisson, even more of a visual tension: the elephant on the right is straining against its ankle chain, its eyes wide, as if to flee from this unfamiliar, not to say frightening, human. A lesser photographer, knowing the picture was a grabber anyway, might have made the shot as soon as Dovima struck a pose. Avedon waited and nailed the moment.

Decades later, Avedon laughingly described another of his triumphs with model and beast: his famous 1981 Vogue portrait of actress Natassja Kinski entwined with a boa constrictor. It was Kinski's idea to create a kind of Eve and serpent tableau, and a snake wrangler was duly hired to bring one of his (tame) charges to the shoot.

But one does not direct a boa constrictor. For all of the sensuous glamor of the pose, Avedon said during a PBS interview, "Natassja spent two hours on a cement floor naked."

"They anchored the snake around her ankles," Avedon said, clearly enjoying the recollection, then waited to see what the critter would do. Shot after shot did not work. Then finally, after many takes, the boa undulated across Kinski's hip and slowly made its way toward her head.

"Natassja, this is it," Avedon said in a hoarse whisper, "Just try to relax!"

Seconds later the snake came to within inches of the actress' ear, then almost languorously extended its fangs, as if in a kiss.


Another classic; another Avedon moment.

"She [Kinski] rose to the occasion," Avedon exulted, grinning, "the snake rose to the occasion. I rose to the occasion" – all in a moment that would have been impossible to plan.

[It is instructive, I think, to recall the joy that Avedon showed in remembering that moment, especially when so much of what has been written since his death has dwelt on his stark, some would call it cruel, portraiture of the famous and the ordinary – the work for which he doubtless will be remembered, much as his contemporary, the late Diane Arbus, is remembered. And that really should be no surprise. They were contemporaries of starkly similar backgrounds, and of almost exactly the same age. (Arbus, who was a suicide at age 48, was two month's Avedon's senior.) Each was Jewish, each came from successful New York mercantile families, and each was fiercely devoted to the work at hand.]

"The subject must become familiar with the fact that, during the sitting, he cannot shift his weight, can hardly move at all, without going out of focus or changing his position in the space," Avedon himself wrote in the foreword to his monumental portrait project, In the American West. "He has to learn to relate to me and the lens as if we were one and the same and to accept the degree of discipline and concentration involved. As the sitting goes on, he begins to understand what I am responding to in him and finds his own way of dealing with that knowledge. The process has a rhythm that is punctuated by the click of the shutter and my assistants changing the plates of film after each exposure. There are times when I speak and times when I do not, times when I react too strongly and destroy the tension that is the photograph."

"I use an 8 x 10 view camera on a tripod, not unlike the camera used by [Edward S.] Curtis, [Mathew] Brady, or [August] Sander, except for the speed of the shutter and film. I stand next to the camera, not behind it, several inches to the left of the lens and about four feet from the subject. As I work I must imagine the pictures I am taking because, since I do not look through the lens, I never see precisely what the film records until the print is made. I am close enough to touch the subject and there is nothing between us except what happens as we observe one another during the making of the portrait. This exchange involves manipulations, submissions. Assumptions are reached and acted upon that could seldom be made with impunity in ordinary life."

"A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is me, must be discovered in someone else willing to take part in a fiction he cannot possibly know about. My concerns are not his. We have separate ambitions for the image. His need to plead his case probably goes as deep as my need to plead mine, but the control is with me."

Finally, in perhaps the most widely quoted of Avedon's public words about his very public work: "A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."

This, then, was the cerebral Richard Avedon, the forbidding portraitist who could cause then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, preparing for a portrait session, to say to Avedon, perhaps only half in jest: "Be kind to me."

But it was not Avedon's job to be kind – or in fact to be cruel. It was Avedon's job to interpret and to document whatever his subjects brought to every portrait session, waiting sometimes excruciatingly long for the right moment, but capturing it all the same. As I said two years ago in reviewing the last major museum show of Avedon's portraits:

"Cruel? No they are not cruel. What they are is powerful in a way that confronting one's own humanity as well as the humanity of others we know or admire can be devastating..."

But such investigation also can be comforting. In gathering reminiscences of those who knew or who had contact with Richard Avedon (as I, sadly, did not) I was struck by the exuberance, the humor, the grace, the brio that Dick Avedon displayed through all of his life. And it is with these memories that I end this appreciation:

Paula Darte, a Washington photographer, remembers meeting Avedon at the Corcoran Gallery, at the end of his "In the American West" show.

"It was the last day of his show - the large portraits - some of them rather upsetting - oversized and against plain white backdrops - not in the least bit flattering.

He was there getting ready to take the show down and a few of us gathered around him, very nervous to meet such a great icon of photography. But we wanted to talk with him, so asked awkward questions - to which he was extremely patient and gracious. I asked him 'What does it take to be noted, to be a major figure in photography?'

His response: 'You don't really have to be great, you just have to be consistent, consistently good. Not great, just good – but consistent.'

"Those words should serve as inspiration to any aspiring photographer - or any aspiring anything."

David Burnett, the great photojournalist and location portraitist, once got advice from Avedon about shooting a wedding.

Burnett first met Avedon in Saigon in1972, when Dave was covering the war and Avedon was there to make his famous group portrait of The Mission Council – the civilian and military leaders who plotted war strategy. More than a dozen years later, Burnett recalled, "my friend Harry Mattison, then a Time contributor, who had worked a good deal in Central America in the late 70s, early 80s, got married in Washington...Harry was a man who knew a good many people, photographers included, but asked me if I would be the semi-official photog of the ceremony. (I had always loved the way the 'semi-official news agency Al-Ahram,' in Cairo, was described in Western press reports, and thence figured that 'semi-official' was the way to go.)...

"I know I was under-equipped for such a task: no flash, and perhaps one body, and some Tri-X, but after the crowd had gone to the cars, there were just a few of us left in the chapel. Harry and [his wife] were hand in hand at the top of the aisle, and I had them slowly walk out, back-pedaling even more slowly, trying to get something with a little 'ambience' (read: blur!), when, out of the right side of the chapel a voice said to me 'You know what you should have them do?' I turned to see Dick Avedon making his way out of the chapel, but not quickly enough to save me from positive embarrassment. 'Have him CARRY her down the aisle!' he said, full of enthusiasm and gusto – and while I could, in my head, almost imagine the wonderfully lively picture he no doubt had in mind, I realized at the same time that my attempt at Cartier-Bresson would certainly not end up as Avedon.

"I tried doing it his way; Harry and Caroline obliged, but I'm afraid the only Avedonian memory that exists of that day is his bouncy smile and gait, and not of the wonderful picture that would have [occurred] had HE done it."

Still, Dave mused, "If you're going to be embarrassed by one of your own, it may as well be the best."

I leave this last (pungent) observation to my friend and ex-colleague Harry Hamburg of the New York Daily News:

"I remember seeing Richard at a Saint Patty's Day parade in NYC many years ago, with me yelling at him to get the fuck out of the way as I was trying to photograph some Philly mummers going by. (I knew who he was [but still] gave him my usual shit.)

"He gave me a big hug, laughed, and headed off with his Rolleicord!"

[Two of my favorite books of Avedon's work are Observations (Simon and Schuster, 1959) and Evidence, 1944-1994 (Random House, Eastman Kodak, 1994).]

Frank Van Riper is a Washington-based commercial and documentary photographer and author. His latest book is Talking Photography (Allworth Press), a collection of his Washington Post columns and other photography writing over the past decade. He can be reached through his website www.GVRphoto.com.

© Richard Avedon
"Dovima with Elephants" shows, in its elegant, if bizarre, setup Avedon's flair for the unusual, but also his ability to capture the moment.

© Frank Van Riper
Avedon's two sides: the gritty and the elegant. The Natassja Kinski portrait became a best-selling poster; his portraits from In the American West became icons of a different sort. (From the book Evidence, 1944-1994)

© Frank Van Riper
Avedon was a perfectionist, as these intricate instructions to his exhibition printer indicate. (Also from Evidence)


Talking PhotographyAlready acclaimed as the photographer's bedside companion, Talking Photography (Allworth Press, $19.95) is award-winning Post photography columnist Frank Van Riper's ten-year collection of his favorite photography columns and essays. This lavishly illustrated paperback already has garnered rave reviews from all walks of photography for its breezy, informative style and unbounded enthusiasm for making pictures.

To order directly, go to: Allworth Press

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