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number 2

Richard Avedon: Portraits at the Metropolitan Museum of Art

By Gayle Snible

I discovered Richard Avedon's work while studying photography at Arizona State University. After sitting through several afternoons of critiques on our finished photos for our portraiture assignment, I was bored with most of the other students' comments— the positive feedback of "You really caught her essence" or "That picture is him," and the damning "I still don't know anything about the subject." I love college art critiques—they're the only time most artists will ever receive so much attention and feedback—but the comments about our portraits hit me as shallow and self-important. We didn't know any of the subjects first-hand; how did we know what their essence was? Were we really able to capture a person's entire being on film? I didn't think so.

Avedon answered these questions for me. After I photocopied his In The American West 1979-1984 cover-to-cover and read dozens of articles about the work, Avedon gave me the answer. "All photographs are accurate," he said. "None of them is the truth."

Of course, one man's truth is another man's lies. My trusty dictionary (The New Shorter Oxford English) defines truth in two ways that I think are relevant in this discussion. Truth is: fact, facts; the matter of circumstance as it really is and/or the real thing, as distinguished from a representation or imitation.

But a person's pose, clothes, and facial expression only show us one fleeting moment, often staged. And the photograph is—by definition—a two-dimensional representation of an object. It doesn't tell the whole story, no matter how much you identify with it.

On Jim Lehrer's PBS show, Avedon once said of his photos: "They're representations of what's there. ‘This jacket is cut this way’; that's very accurate. This really did happen in front of this camera at this... at a given moment. But it's no more truth.... The given moment is part of what I'm feeling that day, what they're feeling that day, and what I want to accomplish as an artist." In other words, it is what it is, nothing more, nothing less.

The “Richard Avedon: Portraits” show at the Met is intriguing and thought-provoking. The subjects are mostly from my parents' and my grandparents' generations; after all, Avedon himself is now 79 years old. The show is a Who's Who of faces and bodies, a historical lesson, and a political dialogue.

Avedon first became involved in photography while shooting ID photos for the U.S. Merchant Marine. His ID photo work obviously influenced his artistic creations; almost every photo in the current show has a white background and very few contain any props other than the clothes that the subjects were wearing that day.

A lot has been said about the giant photo mural of the members of Andy Warhol's Factory, but I enjoyed the portraits of politicians, power brokers, and scientists the most. Robert Oppenheimer sat in a thoughtful stance for his portrait; the image's large grains evoke Oppenheimer’s work on the atomic bomb. An aged Eisenhower's bald head merges into the white background of his photo. Roger Baldwin, founder of the American Civil Liberties Union, affects a no-nonsense attitude. Two walls display 35 small photos each (seven columns, five rows), and here we see yet even more powerful people including George H W Bush, Henry Kissinger, Ralph Nader, AFL-CIO leaders, and a plethora of Congressmen and Congresswomen. The photos were taken in 1976 for a Rolling Stone assignment; we benefit from knowing what many of the subjects' futures hold.

With our country on the verge of war once again, it is powerful to see sixties antiwar protesters the Chicago Seven blown-up beyond life-size on one gallery wall. Facing the Chicago Seven on the opposite wall is the Mission Council, eleven male Vietnam war policymakers with such titles as Minister Counselor for Press Affairs and Minister Counselor for Economic Affairs. Abbie Hoffman and the Chicago Seven look intense yet friendly, wearing jeans, cords, or flannels. The Mission Council members wear business suits and look mean. At least, that’s the truth I see.

The exhibition brings us a lot more than I'm able to convey in a short commentary. Avedon's photos of his father Jacob Israel Avedon (1889-1973) are tear-jerkers; taken in 1969, 1971, and 1973, they depict the physical change of the man's face and expressions as he approaches death. Photos from the In The American West series are as riveting now as they were in my old photocopies. In the original landmark exhibition, these photos were revolutionary in presenting seemingly regular citizens with the same attention (and perhaps manipulation) traditionally given only to celebrities and to the powerful. When I visited, this gallery was not very crowded as everyone flocked to the celebrity portraits.

Most of museum attendees kept a conservative distance from the big prints, but I moved closer so that I could see the lip hairs, the liver spots, and the wrinkles in detail. Avedon's work is both artistic and historical; this is what makes it a success. His camera is inclusive to all, and he lets his subjects create their own image, which they then turn over to the photographer. “The way someone who's being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer's response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about,” he once said. Avedon is both the conduit and the creator – in the studio and in the gallery as well. In the end, the viewer is the one who interprets Avedon's momentary slice of life. Avedon never puts himself in the position of information broker for The Truth, and his work is stronger because of it.

Through January 5th.

Gayle Snible is a freelance publicist and writer living in New York City.

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