While the rest of the Western world already knows Richard Avedon (1923-2004) as a revered 20th-century photographer, he’s not that famous in Australia. The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra therefore has set out to offer audiences the first broad-ranging exhibition of Avedon’s work in the southern hemisphere. Considering that The New York Times proclaimed in Avedon’s obituary that “his fashion and portrait photographs helped define America’s image of style, beauty and culture for the last half-century” and Le Monde described him as “the most lucid observer of our society”, there’s only one thing to say: it’s about time.
Avedon is perhaps most readily known for his fashion photography, and it’s true that he produced iconic fashion photographs that defined his time. Canberra’s new exhibition, entitled People, rightfully explores that aspect, but of course there is more behind the man that shot celebrities like Brigitte Bardot, Jacques Cousteau, Andy Warhol, Marilyn Monroe and the Dalai Lama. The focus turns instead to his groundbreaking portraiture. He might have started out shooting for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, but this was right after he photographed thousands of American sailors during World War II, working as a photographer for the Merchant Marine. At the core of his artistic work was a profound concern for the emotional and social freedom of the individual in society. This concern is exposed the most in his portraits that, with their clarity and boldness, emphasise the reality of his subjects’ lives, combined with an ever-present sense of motion.
“My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They’re readings of what’s on the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues”, he wrote in 1970. To investigate those surfaces, he documented street life in New York City with his Rolleiflex on commission by Life Magazine, shortly after World War II. After nine months of shooting however, he reconsidered, returning his advance and holding back the images. These were eventually published in 1992, in his book An Autobiography. Chris Chapman, the curator of the People exhibition, decided to include these images in the display, after two and a half years of deliberating with the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York, the city where the photographer spent most of his time.
The eighty works that are on display at the National Gallery include shots of hard working farmers, inmates of a mental hospital in the ‘60s (published in his book Nothing Personal, in collaboration with writer James Baldwin and designer Marvin Israel, 1964) and of course plenty of his revealing portraits of the last century’s luminaries – including a two meter tall shot of choreographer Merce Cunningham. Six decades worth of career as a fashion, portrait and documentary photographer captured in one exhibition, “to illustrate his strikingly diverse aspects and to bring out what is at stake for him as an artist, as a photographer, his absolute concern for creative freedom, the creative rights of the individual society”, according to Chapman.
The exhibition also includes the five-year portrait chronicle Avedon embarked on in 1979, the series called In the American West, portraying men and woman who work difficult, uncelebrated jobs – the often ignored or overlooked. The Avedon Foundation described this work as his magnum opus. The choices he made about who to portray were completely subjective but, perhaps when it comes to photography, everything is. “The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion,” Avedon said. “There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.”
While with his celebrity photographs he resisted idealisation, desiring to reveal the humanity of revered individuals, in his fashion photography, he demanded that the models convey emotions – a departure from the norm at the time. Chapman said in an interview that one of the main innovations in Avedon’s style was to take models out of the studio and into the streets, explaining that they “give his work from that period a fantastic sense of dynamism and flair”. Yet, with his portraits, whether of the famous or the unknown, he isolates his sitter against a plain white background to extract them from their surroundings, placing them face to face with the viewer. Adorned only with the intact black edges of his film, the purist’s mark of authenticity, the style of these images defined the Avedonian portrait. The results raw, intimate and powerful.
In his home country of the United States, Avedon is one of most widely exhibited photographers, from Washington’s Smithsonian Institution to New York’s Metropolitan and Whitney museums. And, as perfectionistic as he was, museums exhibiting his work must conform to his rules. For example: the images that exist solely as negatives cannot be turned into exhibition prints. No wonder Chapman had to travel to New York several times to discuss his choices with the foundation. Luckily, there is no shortage of exquisite images to display.
The exhibition Richard Avedon: People is on display at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra, Australia until November 24, 2013. After which it will tour to the Art Gallery of Western Australia and Melbourne’s Monash Gallery of Art next year.
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