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Books: The view from Planet Avedon

Posted by Teresa Hanafin  December 29, 2008 03:44 PM

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Marian Anderson
"Marian Anderson, contralto" / Photo by Richard Avedon, 1955, New York

The photographer's images almost always reflect himself

By Mark Feeney
Globe Staff

"Power" and "performance" have more in common than a first letter and Richard Avedon's avid interest. At their most potent (that letter again), they are all but interchangeable. Think of the hold a great actor has on an audience. Think of how well a leader plays a part before the electorate. It should come as no surprise, then, that several Avedon portraits of the same person appear in both of these very large, very expensive, and frequently problematic books, "Performance" and "Portraits of Power." The problem comes in trying to decide at what point a photographer's greatness can get in the way of his work.

Although Avedon died four years ago, it's almost as if he's never left. The last picture in "Portraits of Power" is of Barack Obama, taken a few months before Avedon's death. (Prescience is a form of luck, and the better the photographer the more of it he or she has.) "Portraits of Power" is now hanging at the Corcoran Gallery, in Washington, D.C. Next year the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is mounting a major retrospective, and New York's International Center of Photography is showing a large exhibition of Avedon's fashion photography.

The world's most famous photographer in life, he remains no less so in death.

Why? Well, fame follows form, for one thing. As a master of fashion photography and portraiture, Avedon inevitably acquired the sizzle of those two most glamorous of photographic genres - especially since, as "Performance" reminds us, so many of his subjects were themselves celebrities.

Above all, there's the matter of Avedon's artistry. Bert Lahr cringing; W. H. Auden in an East Village snowstorm; Marian Anderson, her open mouth a moue of ecstatic song (above); Ezra Pound, eyes squeezed shut, as sightless as Homer and still politically blind - these are spectacular images, justly famous. They all share Avedon's cardinal virtue as a portraitist: a sense of furious engagement with his subject.

Part of the fascination of an Avedon portrait is seeing the degree to which he imposed on the photograph his own vision of the sitter and to what degree that vision differed from the sitter's public image. "Scratch the surface," Avedon liked to say, "and if you're really lucky you find more surface." The question is how unexpected, or congruent, that surface beneath the scratch might be.

"Avedon was an elitist snob who deliberately set me up," Karl Rove declares of his portrait in "Power." "The portrait (below) is foolish, stupid, insulting. It makes me look like a complete idiot." Actually, the undeniable goofiness of the likeness makes Rove seem rather endearing.

Karl Rove
Karl Rove, Republican National Convention, NY, 2004 / Richard Avedon

Conversely, Avedon presents a Billy Graham who looks like Roy Cohn (it's the prominence of the nose) and a Bjork who appears slightly extraterrestrial, not that that's so hard.

Several photographs in "Performance" include Avedon within the frame. The most interesting - and telling? - shows him in the foreground, looking meditative as he gazes into the viewfinder of his Rolleiflex, while in the background Sophia Loren stares into space, mannequin-like, teasing her hair. One guess who's the real star.

The worst thing about an Avedon portrait is very often also the best: It's always about him. One reason he's so much more successful photographing the famous is because there's a balance between artist and subject that's absent with an unknown person. Most often, Avedon liked to shoot a sitter in his studio against a gray or white background. It's a self-contained world of his own making. Call it the Avedon Zone. When he steps outside that zone the intense, if understated, artifice of his style can bump up against inhospitable reality; and the artifice has a tendency to dent.

The pictures he took in Vietnam in 1971, for example, seem grotesque - and not in the way Avedon intended. The pictures he took at the Brandenburg Gate after the fall of the Berlin Wall clearly strive for an art-historical greatness to match the world-historical greatness of the situation. They just as clearly fail. (Both sequences are in "Power.") Conversely, for all that we may not recognize the dancers or actors caught in the act in the many action photographs in "Performance," the images work so well because their artifice accords with Avedon's own.

Ultimately, the work here isn't about the people in these pictures, let alone power or performance, per se. It's about Avedon's power, Avedon's performance. The black frame lines visible in so many of his portraits are a kind of signature, or better yet emblem, akin to the butterfly in a Whistler painting. Whistler, in fact, may be a better comparison than another photographer for understanding Avedon. Each man was such a dandy, in art no less than life, and such an outsize figure: pure pirouetting persona (yes, more p words). Loving art so much, they loved life too little, and to the detriment of their art.

Mark Feeney is a member of the Globe staff.

Richard Avedon: Performance
By John Lahr, Mike Nichols, André Gregory, Mitsuko Uchida, and Twyla Tharp
Abrams, 303 pp., illustrated, $75

Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power
By Renata Adler, Paul Roth, and Frank Goodyear
Steidl/Corcoran Gallery of Art, 295 pp., illustrated, $60

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