Portrait work by Avedon

Okay, One more entry on Richard Avedon before its seems like I'm president of his fan club.

Like I mentioned earlier, Avedon was a successful fashion / commercial photographer but wanted to be considered an 'art' photographer as well. So besides doing beautiful images of beautiful people wearing beautiful clothes, he also concentrated on making strong compelling portraits of famous people as a means to earn a certain kind of respect in that field (An interesting side note: his equally successful contemporary in the fashion photography world, Irving Penn, chose the genre of the still life instead).
Avedon's quest led him to take on an ambitious project when he traveled through the western United States and photographed regular people that caught his attention, this work culminated in an exhibition and book titled 'In the American West'. Both the book and exhibition were successful commercially and critically although it has been critically panned as well (more on why below) and helped further establish him as a household name.

Probably to differentiate his portrait work from his fashion work, Richard Avedon is known to have established a particular mode operandi to get the image that he wanted from his subject.

The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Waldorf Astoria, suite 28A, New York, April 16, 1957

The story goes that for the image above, Richard Avedon was telling the Duke and Duchess of an incident in which he saw a dog being hit by a car while he was heading over to the shoot. Knowing that the Duke and Duchess were avid dog-lovers, he was expecting them to have an adverse reaction to the story, making them lower their guard (the one everyone puts up when they know they are being photographed) and capture them with this look. What comes through is not one that contains the shield of a smile but one that is more raw and realistic and exposes the inner self.

Marilyn Monroe, actor, New York, May 6, 1957
We can assume that a similar thing happened here.  This is not the Marilyn Monroe persona Ms. Baker tried so hard to foster, but one in which shows her vulnerability as much as her cleavage. Gone is the tilted head thrown back with slightly opened lips and lowered eyelids that Ms. Baker used to suggest as a post-coitally satiated presence, instead we see her with slumped shoulders and lost in introspection. She appears diminutive and overpowered by the emptiness around her.

Maria Callas, coloratura soprano, New York, February 10, 1970
And here is Maria Callas. The look on her face does not feel like it comes from acting but rather from hurt and candor.

Don't get me wrong, I think these are wonderful images, some of my favorite actually, but I just can't help but wonder what the subject's reaction was to them. Here is a person about to be photographed by a photographer who makes utterly beautiful images working with the most beautiful models of the time and he makes you look sad and pitiful.  I can't imagine Monroe being happy with her image depicting her like that during the height of her fame, nor the Duchess of Windsor content with her depiction showing all the wrinkles of time and tears written across her face.

Avedon is definitely not the only photographer to resort to 'tricks' to get the portrait they want, and you have to do what you have to do to get the image you want to get.  Many portrait photographers use 'tricks' to get their subjects to relax or at least put down their guard. Some even resort to not even putting film in the camera during the first 'rolls' of shooting. These first 'rolls' of shooting exhausts the subject and allows the best images to be created during the final rolls when the subject has lost their self-consciousness.

But it was this 'rawness' which created most of the critique directed at what is perhaps his magnus opus 'In the American West.' For this ambitious project, Avedon photographed thousands of images using several assistants, an 8X10 large format camera with his signature white backdrop and had them printed larger-than-life for exhibition purposes.

Hansel Nicholas Burum, coal miner, Somerset, Colorado, December 17, 1979

He abandoned photographing celebrities and models and instead concentrated on everyday working class people as his subject and the critique comes because of this.

Juan Patricio Lobato, Carney, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23. 1980

Here is a well-established fashion photographer, who has worked with some of the most famous people of the time, comes in with a crew, lighting and an 8X10 camera (which can be very intimidating) and sets up a background which strips a person of their surroundings (and therefore some identity) to photograph people who are not in the habit of being photographed at this level. 

Needless to say, the structure of power is all in the hands of the photographer and the process can, and has been, seen as exploitative. The blank background (and large scale) encourages the viewer to scrutinize the subject being depicted.

Some would argue that this is also how Avedon depicted celebrities, but we must consider for a moment how one views the images of the rich and famous being depicted as vulnerable, it somehow humanizes their stature, as opposed to viewing someone of lesser means depicted in the same manner, it instead opens them up to pity.

Petra Alvarado, on her birthday, factory worker, El Paso, Texas, April 22, 1982


Avedon Group Portrait

Daughters of the American Revolution, 1963 by Richard Avedon

His signature use of a white background flattens the visual depth of the image while the tight crop emphasizes a cramped space. This candid shot is taken while the subjects are in preparation for a formally-posed portrait session. It's unexpected capture displays each sitter's individual personality and their dynamic within a group, while the compact composition underscores their communal relationship.