Although Richard Avedon first earned his reputation as a fashion photographer, his greatest achievement has been his stunning reinvention of the genre of photographic portraiture. Featuring approximately 180 works, this exhibition spans the artist's entire career, from his earliest portraits in the late 1940s through his most recent work. Among the highlights of the exhibition are stunning portrayals of twentieth-century artistic, intellectual, and political figures, including Marilyn Monroe, Truman Capote, Charlie Chaplin, Dwight D. Eisenhower, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, Marian Anderson, Willem de Kooning, and many others; a series of portraits of the artist's father in the years just prior to his death; and portraits of the unsung citizenry from the artist's series In The American West. The exhibition also features Avedon's mural-size group portraits of: Andy Warhol and the members of the Factory (1969), the coterie of artists, filmmakers, and performers who comprised the avant-garde bohemia of the day; the Mission Council (1971), military and political leaders who determined policy in regard to the Vietnam War; and the Chicago Seven (1969), a group of activists on trial for conspiring to incite an anti-war riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
Other portraits on view include W. H. Auden (1956); Dorothy Parker (1958); J. Robert Oppenheimer (1958), the astronaut Gus Grissom (1961); Marcel Duchamp (1968); the pianist Oscar Levant (1972); William S. Burroughs (1975); Samuel Beckett (1979); Francis Bacon (1979); and the poet Joseph Brodsky (1991).
Avedon's success in fashion photography is widely recognized. (In 1956 his brilliant early career was fictionalized in the Hollywood musical Funny Face, starring Fred Astaire as the fashion photographer "Dick Avery.") Unlike the fashion work, however, most of Avedon's portraits did not issue from commercial assignments but from personal convictions and were solicited by the artist himself. Each is a virtuoso reckoning with human complexities and contradictions and a powerful expression of this artist's distinctive vision.
With uncompromising directness, Avedon portrays his subjects against a bright, white, seamless background, with no props or extraneous details to distract from their person—from the essential specificity of face, gaze, dress, and gesture. When everything extraneous is stripped away, what remains is a remarkable intensity of characterization. The people in Avedon's photographs seem posed to walk right out of their frames, immediately recognizable and wholly alive down to the most telling detail.
Director's Foreword by Philippe de Montebello from the exhibition publication Richard Avedon: Portraits (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2002
Richard Avedon, like the subjects of his boldly scaled photographic portraits, is a figure who may at times appear larger than life. In a career that has spanned more than half a century, he has distinguished himself as an artist of immense energy and originality and has created many of the iconic images of our time. Avedon first made his name in the pages of Harper's Bazaar, where his arresting images set a new standard for fashion photography. His fashion photography was the subject of a major exhibition, Avedon: Photographs, 1947–1977, presented at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978. An equal achievement has been his reinvention of the genre of photographic portraiture. Unlike the fashion work, most of Avedon's portraits were not initiated by commercial assignments but by personal conviction. Each is a virtuoso reckoning with human complexities and contradictions and a powerful expression of this artist's distinctive vision.
As is the case with any genuine innovation, much of the best, most recent art is not easy to absorb. To some viewers, Avedon's signature white-background portrait style, with its sharp clarity and unforgiving light, may seem difficult or astringent. In his refusal to flatter or idealize, he carries on a tradition of unflinching naturalism that began with fifteenth-century Netherlandish masters and shares with them an abiding humanism and a clear-eyed commitment to the physical realities of this world.
Avedon's portrait work constitutes a modern-day pantheon of many of the major artistic, intellectual, and political figures of the late twentieth-century, and, as such, it belongs to the time-honored tradition of public portraiture. Much like the great nineteenth-century French photographer, Nadar, whose telling portraits of rare individuals captured the creative genius of his generation, so Avedon, a century later, collected the key players and directed them in a brilliant portrait of an era that was questioning, unruly, and self-consciously alive. With Avedon, photography is the instrument of an engaged and liberal sensibility and occasionally the naturalism of his portraits takes on a satirical edge that also brings the caricaturist Honoré Daumier to mind.
The most important exhibition of Avedon's portraits was held in 1975 at the Marlborough Gallery in New York, where the photographs were presented in a stunning installation designed by the artist in collaboration with his close friend, the art director Marvin Israel. The force of the spare portraits, the scope of the artist's endeavor, and the enormous size of the three central group portrait murals created an indelible impression, forcing visitors to contend with the personalities who so vividly confronted them on the gallery walls. Two years ago, The Metropolitan Museum of Art had the great good fortune to receive as a promised gift the contents of that exhibition, which the artist had retained in its entirety. We extend our deep gratitude to the artist for his exceptional generosity and to his gallerist, Jeffrey Fraenkel, who was highly instrumental in bringing this historic body of work to the Museum.
A native New Yorker, Avedon has always had a special connection to the Metropolitan Museum. As a young man, he spent hours in our paintings galleries, especially taken with works by Goya, Soutine, and Modigliani. He was also drawn to Egyptian art, and in particular, the Fayum portraits, painted panels dating from the first century A.D. that were inserted into mummy wrappings. In these ancient faces, he perhaps first recognized the mysterious power of the art of portraiture.
Maria Morris Hambourg, curator in charge of the Metropolitan's Department of Photographs, was among those who visited Avedon's 1975 exhibition at the Marlborough Gallery. The impetus for the exhibition that accompanies this book was her desire to make that experience available to a broader audience and a new generation of viewers. Rather than simply recreating that installation, she has chosen to present those original, carefully printed photographs as the core of a full-scale survey of Avedon's portrait work. Over the course of his prodigious career, Avedon has produced thousands of portraits, and shaping this exhibition has been a rigorous and rewarding process. Working closely with the artist, Dr. Hambourg has gathered the finest existing prints of his most penetrating images. This highly refined and discerning view gives Avedon his proper place in the larger history of the art of portraiture. In presenting this pantheon of portraits, which is both fully representative of its period and one of its remarkable achievements, we hope that today's public will gain an enlightening glimpse of our own time as it may look to future generations.
"Avedon's Endgame" by Maria Morris Hambourg and Mia Fineman, from the exhibition publication Richard Avedon: Portraits (Harry N. Abrams, New York, 2002)
Richard Avedon is a man possessed. Passionate about theater, he may attend the same play week after week, seeking new insight, variant shades of characterization, and changes in his own perceptions. He haunts art cinemas, portrait galleries, and museums, and his thirst for literature, especially for Shakespeare, Chekhov, Proust, and Beckett, is unslakeable; his oceanic library has engulfed his living space and laps at the raft of his bed. Whatever he gleans from his obsessive studies in the secret nature of humanity is turned to account in his work.
Although often confused with the fashion photographer and society portraitist, this Richard Avedon works not for gain or glory but out of private necessity. His life work is portraiture, but his pictures are rarely assigned; they are more often self-generated, born of imagination and achieved with collaborators willing to be annexed for a longer life in art. An irrepressible innovator, Avedon has consistently defied conventional expectations about what a portrait is supposed to look like, always avoiding tired formulas—the writer in his book-lined study, the pianist at the baby grand—and offering instead a radically purified approach to the genre. By dint of progressive challenges to himself, he has not only distilled photographic portraiture to its irreducible core, but also has produced an extended meditation on life, death, art, and identity in the form of a vast collective portrait of America in the second half of the twentieth century.
When Avedon was ten he became obsessed with the idea of photographing Sergei Rachmaninoff, who lived in the apartment above his grandparents on Manhattan's Riverside Drive. After staking out the lobby with his Kodak Box Brownie, he managed to capture the composer standing next to a fire hydrant on West End Avenue. "I wanted him to see me, to recognize me somehow," Avedon told a French journalist years later. "I wanted him to give me something of himself that I could keep, something private and permanent that would connect me to him." The picture, now lost, of this heroic figure in the Russian Jewish firmament of New York was the first in Avedon's private pantheon. Autograph collecting, a long-lived and passionate hobby springing from the same desire, led the teenaged Avedon to gather an idiosyncratic constellation of stars. His album, studded with the signatures of writers, vaudeville comedians, classical musicians, and puppeteers, had a special section devoted to "Great Jews and Great Judges." Also lost, it was a concerted attempt to make a "collection of like-minded people," a first stab at an idea that in some sense has remained with him for life as he seeks out subjects for his camera.
The young Avedon wanted very badly to be a poet; his model was T. S. Eliot, whose brilliant crystallizations of the undercurrents of the young twentieth century inspired him with haunting images of melancholy desire, solitude, and desolation. In 1941, at the end of his senior year and a few days after his eighteenth birthday, he was elected Poet Laureate of the New York City High Schools for his poem "Spring at Coventry," set amidst the ruins of the British cathedral recently bombed by the German Luftwaffe. Upon leaving high school, Avedon briefly studied poetic composition and philosophy at Columbia University, but he soon took account of his gifts and sagely switched from the pen to the camera. "I realized I didn't have the intellectual equipment to deal eloquently with the kind of emotional material that compelled me," he recently explained. Photography offered his roiling emotions a quicker, more conclusive resolution than the patient sifting, gathering, and fitting of words and, even more importantly, "it also appeared not to be about me." A sensitive, hyperactive youth with a ravenous need to connect and to succeed, he could simultaneously explore the social world and his own emotional predicament by using a camera to relocate his feelings in external symbolic equivalents.
A neighbor with whom he had practiced photography became a mate in the photographic division of the Merchant Marine and, grateful for this alternative to the draft, Avedon likewise joined up. As a Photographer's Mate Second Class, he made mug shots for military ID cards. "I must have taken pictures of maybe one hundred thousand baffled faces," he has written, "before it ever occurred to me I was becoming a photographer." Following his release in 1944, he put together a portfolio of pictures and after a dozen attempts, badgered Alexey Brodovitch, the famous Russian designer and art director of Harper's Bazaar, into looking at it. Accepted into Brodovitch's classes in photography and design at the New School for Social Research, the twenty-three year old was soon undertaking his first assignments at the magazine. Energetic, aquiver with new ideas, and willing to try anything, he covered the French couture collections; the pictures he made in Paris that first year fairly revolutionized fashion photography and launched a brilliant career.
In tandem with this highly public success in fashion, he also made other pictures, most of them portraits, mostly for himself. One of the first keepers was a picture he made in Noto, Sicily, in 1947. From a landscape as barren and elemental as a Beckett stage set ("A country road. A tree."), Avedon created a bleached-out no-man's-land; a boy stands there, pushing forward to the front of the picture, his chest puffed up under a lumpy wool jacket, his arms pressed flat against his sides as if to keep them from flying up in sheer exuberance. He is smiling wildly, ready to race into the future. And there, hovering behind him like a mushroom cloud, is the past in the form of a single, strange tree—a reminder of the horror that split the century into a before and after, a symbol of destruction but also of regeneration.
By tacit agreement, Avedon's included, this picture—a kind of projected self-portrait—has come to stand for the artist's youthful self, for it fixes a moment of propulsive glee mutually mirrored in photographer and subject. Later, Avedon rarely made portraits in which any element other than the sitter is visible, but here already he had begun to divine that backgrounds were distracting and middle and foregrounds intrusive: the soul of his art was more comfortable in an undefined world.
Once fully immersed in fashion at the Bazaar, Avedon felt a part of himself stranded. To get back to the heart of his concerns, which he now located with some certainty in the theater, he left Brodovitch and the magazine in 1949 to become associate art editor at Theater Arts Monthly, a position that netted him tickets to the shows and enabled his portraits of actors. Those with highly developed, vocational understandings of the face as mask, such as vaudevillian Bobby Clark and silent movie master Buster Keaton, were magnets for him. He also wanted to make portraits that bristled with emotional expressiveness without resorting to the artful backlighting and slick, patent poses of celebrity portraits by such photographers as Edward Steichen and Anton Bruehl. He tried photographing performers in mid-act, such as Martita Hunt in Giraudoux's Madwoman of Chaillot and a ghoulish Fredrick Ashton in Sleeping Beauty. Although the pictures are not convincing and the job at Theater Arts proved unsatisfactory after a few months, it confirmed Avedon in his pursuit of subjects who could actively express the roles they inhabited. Soon he had Brodovitch letting him make the kind of portraits he wanted for Harper's Bazaar. The November 1955 issue included Avedon's feature on the Metropolitan Opera, a suite of portraits that included the contralto Marian Anderson wholly immersed in her art—a stunning image of song incarnate.
Similarly, his enthusiasm for Beckett's play Waiting for Godot, kindled on the play's opening night in New York in 1956, led him to photograph Bert Lahr as Estragon. An inveterate fan of Keaton, Chaplin, and all vaudevillian tropes, Avedon instantly felt at home in this controversial and, for many, difficult play. He identified particularly with Estragon, part slapstick clown, part tenderfooted hobo, dealing with "the issueless predicament of existence," as Beckett put it. This ingenious mélange of low comedy laced with metaphysical anguish seemed to Avedon a perfect equivalent for a rudderless world: it highlighted modern life's ingrained inconclusiveness and illustrated the cagey deceptions we deal to distract from our hopelessness. In Avedon's portrait, Lahr's Gogo is seized in the clutch of histrionic pain, left appropriately ambiguous. Beaten and bewildered, he cries out to Didi, his sole companion in the Void: "Don't touch me! Don't question me! Don't speak to me! Stay with me!"
Initially drawn to actors, Avedon also sought out people with a highly cultivated sense of themselves as characters—subjects who could collaborate with him in the creation of an impromptu performance. Among them were two poets delivering opposite readings of their calling as "literalists of the imagination," in Marianne Moore's words—Ezra Pound, the passionate declaimer versus Moore, precisionist phraser. At other times Avedon dismantled his sitters' carefully crafted personas, portraying them instead as they might not have wished or expected to be seen. In his portrait of Isak Dinesen, he intensified the Danish writer's theatrical mannerisms to such an extent that out of the artifice sprang a condensed kernel of truth. "We met in a hotel in Copenhagen," he recalled, "She arrived wearing an enormous wolf-skin coat and her first words to me were, 'I judge people by what they think of King Lear.' I was completely intimidated." He summarized his deeper view of the matter in the two portraits that resulted: a pale, cadaverous head atop a dark pillar of fur, and a close-up capturing her manic, devouring gaze. Dinesen's imperiousness, her bravado, and her underlying doubt, rise to the surface and invest the pictures with a terrifying honesty.
Also unmasked were the Duke and Duchess of Windsor—the leading couple in a political soap opera played out on the world's stage—whom Avedon had watched for nights at the roulette tables in Monaco, noting their reactions to loss, and whom he lured into reprising their losers roles for the instant of his photograph. He was registering not so much the cost of a kingdom but a moral deficit, a flaw of character. In this mode, however, Avedon is not always harsh. He approached Groucho Marx with love in his eye, portraying him not as a popular prankster but as a wise elder statesman of Jewish culture; he took a wise elder statesman—a five-star general and former President of the United States—and portrayed him not as the avuncular Eisenhower of popular myth but as a man who truly knows the horrors of war and the dangers of misplaced power.
In Marilyn Monroe, Avedon found a virtuoso of theatrical self-impersonation and with her pursued the mysterious point of convergence between actor and character, between the private self and the public role. "There was no such person as Marilyn Monroe," he explained in an interview with the filmmaker, Helen Whitney. "Marilyn Monroe was someone Marilyn Monroe invented, like an author creates a character." Recalling a session that took place at his studio on a May evening in 1957, he continued: "For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing that's—she did Marilyn Monroe. And then there was the inevitable drop. And when the night was over and the white wine was over and the dancing was over, she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone. I saw her sitting quietly without expression on her face, and I walked towards her but I wouldn't photograph her without her knowledge of it. And as I came with the camera, I saw that she was not saying no."
The famous portrait that resulted from this session is a study of the complex nature of celebrity. Entombed in her body, Avedon's Marilyn is a secular Madonna mourning some indefinable loss. The picture is imbued with a sense of interiority that seems worlds away from the rigid mask in Andy Warhol's posthumous silk screens of Marilyn as a gaudily glamorous Pop icon. While Avedon's portrait foreshadowed the tragic figure Marilyn would soon become in the popular imagination, Warhol's silk screens, made shortly after her death from a drug overdose in 1962, have the still and distant quality of memorials. Yet neither Avedon's humanist portrayal of a sad seductress nor Warhol's lurid canonization of her vivacious, wet-lipped counterpart reveals the real Marilyn Monroe. The truth of Avedon's portrait lies in a new character, a melancholy heroine collaboratively created by the photographer and his subject.
Up until the late sixties, Avedon had been using a small, square-format Rolleiflex for nearly all of his fashion and portrait work. This camera, which he held at waist level, peering down into the viewfinder, was a mobile and tractable tool that eventually came to feel like an extension of his own body. Energetic and lithe, he practically danced with the camera, electrifying the atmosphere of the studio. The sprightly, hyperkinetic quality of the young man—his slightly aggressive, hairtrigger responsiveness—imbued his photographs with a subtle yet unmistakable quality of present-ness. But by the early sixties this way of working had grown both too easy and too disconcerting. "The camera was almost taking the pictures itself. Hovering over the camera and peering into it, I never saw the people who were there, or saw them seeing me," he explained recently, "and portraiture is about that authentic connection."
In 1969 Avedon began using an eight-by-ten-inch Deardorff view camera on a tripod—a cumbersome and demanding piece of equipment that brought with it a new way of working and a new set of constraints. Rather than moving with the Rolleiflex at his waist, he was now standing beside a large box with a static lens. No longer a mobile extension of the eye, the camera became a silent witness to the concentrated face-off between photographer and subject.
The mug shots of young recruits posed against a plain white background that Avedon made in the Merchant Marine offered an early intimation of his mature portrait style. Born of the nineteenth-century fascination with physiognomy and criminal classification, the mug shot is the purest—and most purely photographic—form of portraiture. A standard mug shot, with its blunt frontality, uniform lighting, and set proportion of head to frame, strips away all extraneous elements, establishing a stringent formal neutrality that presents the unique configuration of the subject's face as its primary content. Now he adapted the rigorous, stripped-down purity of this format, pushing to its farthest limit, and in the process, elevating it to the level of serious art.
Using the Deardorff, Avedon generally poses his subjects against a plain white seamless backdrop, illuminated by shadowless, diffuse sunlight or by a similar kind of flat, studio lighting. Because the camera's shutter speed is slow and the depth-of-field is shallow, the subject cannot move much without throwing something out of focus. Because of the tight framing and Avedon's commitment to using the entire, uncropped sheet—black borders and all—the subject cannot shift or slump, and must remain attentive and finely attuned to the discipline of the process. There are no props; there is nothing to lean on or hide behind. "I've worked out of a series of no's," Avedon explains. "No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no's force me to the 'yes.' I have a white background. I have the person I'm interested in and the thing that happens between us." With everything inessential stripped away, what remains is a pure opportunity for engagement, ranging from close connection to a more reserved confrontation, with innumerable feints, detours, dead ends, and digressions in between. Finally an endgame is reached when the more practiced player, having scrutinized every move and countermove, knows he has arrived at the win-all exposure.
Although Avedon's white-background portrait style evolved out of a personal set of artistic preoccupations and pictorial solutions, his approach reflected a certain ethos of reduction and distillation that emerged in the art of the mid-sixties. By this time the painterly facture and expressive gestures that characterized the art of Pollock and De Kooning no longer contained the truth many younger artists sought. The new tendency, initially more an attitude than a practice, was laid out by Ad Reinhardt in his 1957 manifesto, "Twelve Rules for a New Academy," in which he sketched his reductive approach to painting as a list of prohibitions: no texture, no brushwork, no drawing, no forms, no design, no colors, no light, no space, no size or scale, no movement, no subject. Reinhardt's writings and his notorious black paintings stimulated a number of younger artists—including Donald Judd, Carl Andre, and Robert Morris—to further refinements. Rejecting the traditional notion of the work of art as a discrete and self-contained object, these artists turned their attention to the present-tense perceptual experience of the viewer and the qualities of the exhibition space itself. Purged of all excess, their spare, geometric volumes activated the surrounding architecture, focusing and intensifying the viewer's somatic responses to scale, space, and light.
What Avedon shared with these artists was not only a commitment to a stylized simplicity, but also a sensitivity to scale and an implicit acknowledgment of the embodied presence of the viewer. Already in 1962 he had made big enlargements of his pictures for display at the Smithsonian Institution, and for his landmark exhibition of portraits at New York's Marlborough Gallery in 1975, he produced spectacular wall-sized versions of several images. The resulting larger-than-life figures that made the viewer feel like Gulliver among the Brobdingnagians were sensational in the original, literal meaning of the word: they reacquainted the viewer with his bodily sensations. One could not see the show without being pressed into a confrontation with the people depicted on the walls, and the vividness of the portrayals combined with the rocketing emotions most visitors experienced made it a show unlike any other. Avedon had forced his public to feel, but coercion was nowhere evident. Rather the whole installation and virtually every image in it seemed restrained, elegant in the extreme, cool, and yet somehow intensely personal.
The centerpiece of this exhibition was a thirty-one-foot-long mural that is Avedon's most ambitious portrait, Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory. In the sixties, when he was deeply into Proust's long novel, the photographer nursed the idea of throwing an annual party for the purpose of taking a series of grand group portraits. From year to year the constitution of the group naturally would evolve: a new talent would appear, another would have taken on stature, and positions next to the seat of power would accordingly shift, elders would die, couples would form, and so on. From picture to picture one could trace the interweaving, knotting, and raveling of the multiple strands of complex lives and careers. Cinematic in scope, the idea resonates deeply with the films of Jean Renoir, particularly The Rules of the Game, which Avedon appreciatively describes as "a portrait not just of individuals but of an entire society looking for company and needing to escape it."
Although Avedon never pursued the project, its usable residue shaped the Factory portrait of 1969. Working in his most directorial mode, the photographer began with all his actors jumbled together in a single frame. Gradually, as he moved them around, he found he needed to expand the space. He broke the group into smaller clumps, isolating and highlighting certain figures, and the Factory spread out in a lateral frieze across four frames that abutted one another. He embedded a narrative in the scene, as Joe Dallesandro moved across the frieze from left to right leaving the trace of an implied time lapse in his passage. The denouement—Warhol filming Dallesandro coupling with a woman on a mattress—occurred in the far right frame. That frame Avedon ultimately cut out of the work, leaving the reason for the internal movement ambiguous. In the three remaining frames, the Factory "workers" in various stages of dress, undress, and dishevelment mill about in an appropriately equivocal expression of on-flowing stasis, to which Avedon added a satiric charade of the three male (as opposed to female) graces, a play of hands owing much to Renaissance painting, and an emotional blankness not unlike Warhol's affectless demeanor. Exquisitely attentive to every detail of the interplay of figures and their graphic positions against the white ground, Avedon created a tour de force cycle laid out flat, as if the figures progressing around the belly of a Greek vase had paused for the photographer's camera before resuming their rounds.
Once he had photographed the Factory, Avedon realized that he could handle other groups with his multi-panel technique, and, as antiwar protests shook the establishment, he went to Chicago to photograph the Chicago Seven, a group of radicals on trail for conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic National Convention the previous year. A year and a half later, he traveled to Vietnam to depict the Mission Council, the highest-ranking military and civilian managers of the American side of the war. With the latter two groups, Avedon adopted a non-committal, deadpan attitude—as if he were simply a police photographer documenting a lineup of perpetrators. This approach also guided his work on The Family, a group of sixty-nine photographs of heads of state, union leaders, bankers, and media moguls—a composite portrait of the power elite—published as a special issue of Rolling Stone in 1976. Although his innate sympathies were with the dispossessed and his liberal politics are woven into his work in subtle or not so subtle patterns, with The Family, Avedon scrupulously tried to avoid expressing any opinion about his sitters, preferring to let them pose and photograph themselves so that his prejudice would not skew the results.
Avedon's deceptively neutral give-them-enough-rope strategy appeared as early as 1960 when he photographed Walter Hickock and his son Dick, the murderer whose story became Truman Capote's In Cold Blood. It surfaces again in a 1963 group portrait of eleven aging women, The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution, who are surely the more curious the more dispassionately they are seen. Similarly, when working in the South the same year to photograph the Civil Rights movement, Avedon made an unforgettable portrait of William Casby, a man who was born a slave. The photographer's moral outrage at the historical scandal of slavery is implicit in the picture's complete lack of inflection; it is, as Roland Barthes has written, a revelation of "what makes a face into the product of a society and its history."
Whatever debt Avedon may owe to mid-sixties minimalism, his signature white-background style is fundamentally the graphic expression of a peculiarly modern affect. In the stark, featureless world of these photographs, the individual stands alone, bathed in a shadowless light that makes no effort to palliate the harsh realities of aging and the simple fact of mortality. The pictures convey a sense of the uneasy isolation and free-floating anxiety that pulses like a bass note through the film and literature of the postwar European avant-garde: its vibrations can be felt in the novels of Camus, Sartre, Malraux, and Robbe-Grillet, in the absurdist drama of Beckett and Ionesco, and later, in the films of French New Wave and Italian neo-realist directors like Godard, Resnais, de Sica, Rossellini, Fellini, and Antonioni. Avedon shares with these artists a painfully lucid apprehension of the ambiguity and absurdity of the human situation, combined with a staunch faith in the redemptive consolation of art. "Of all the schools of patience and lucidity, creation is the most effective," wrote Camus. "It is also the staggering evidence of man's sole dignity: the dogged revolt against his condition. . . . But perhaps the great work of art has less importance in itself than in the ordeal it demands of a man and the opportunity it provides him of overcoming his phantoms and approaching a little closer to his naked reality."
This postwar mood of bleakness leavened by hope has never left Avedon's portraits. It is there in his great two-panel portrait of an aging Beckett, dressed in a black turtleneck and dark wool suit, looking like the very embodiment of courageous pessimism, and in his explosive portrait of Oscar Levant, the pianist and Hollywood raconteur, as a divine madman caught between a laugh and a scream, howling into the Void that has somehow crept into his Beverly Hills bungalow. The carnies and drifters Avedon photographed as part of his five-year-long project, In the American West (1979–84), are like younger, American cousins of Beckett's gentleman tramps—elegantly ravaged antiheroes suspended somewhere between comedy and tragedy. The mood is there in his picture of Noto, with its mushroom cloud, and again in his almost otherworldly portrait of J. Robert Oppenheimer as a fallen angel in a three-piece suit, a humbled and mystified destroyer of worlds.
Like the books by the writers he admires, Avedon's photographs address the largest themes—intimacy and alienation, presence and self-estrangement, honesty and deception, struggle and acceptance, love and death—but what anchors these notions in the concrete is the intensity of his characterizations. The people in the pictures seem posed to walk right out of their frames, immediately recognizable and wholly alive down to the most telling detail. "I have a great faith in surfaces," Avedon has said, "a good one is full of clues." These precise visual clues—Polly Mellen's quizzically tilted head, Renata Adler's drifting left eye, the way Brodovitch pinches a lit cigarette between the thumb and forefinger of a hand wrapped around the padded handle of a metal crutch—are preserved in the portraits like flies in amber.
Yet these revelatory details only add specificity to a vividness of character born of what Avedon refers to as "an unearned intimacy," the sort of immediate, deep relationship that flowers effortlessly on shipboard, in prisons, on movie sets, and in other close quarters. With the eight-by-ten he traps his subject in a space with no exit. Standing in front of him or her, the photographer directs a silent dialogue that is distinct from the audible discussion of the logistics of the sitting. Excited by the challenge and internally strung to a very high key, Avedon attends to his sitter with his whole being, watching and sensing viscerally, mirroring and responding to the slightest shifts in body image, facial expression, and gesture. "I am close enough to touch them; there is nothing between us except our observations of one another during the making of the portrait," he says. "This exchange involves chains of maneuvers and submissions. Assumptions are reached and acted upon that could seldom be made with impunity in real life." There is a risk that his sitter won't be able to meet him, to reach deeply enough into himself to justify the photographer's openness. But if the inwardness comes through and the photographer catches it, that connective, creative zeal is joyfully released through the art. The resulting portrait may be miraculous or indifferent, but it is always a solution of the objective and the subjective, the prepared and the improvised, the self and the other. As depicted, the person in the frame is a new creation, the but-for-the-photograph ephemeral product of an extremely subtle process. As Avedon's friend Mike Nichols said of a talented but untried actor whom he directed, "He became what I thought I had created but didn't know existed."
Taped to Avedon's bathroom mirror is a copy of Beckett's last poem, "What is the Word," a final meditation on the bewildering futility of language by one of the greatest writers of the twentieth century. The poem is a stuttering soliloquy made up of repeated phrases broken by dashes, like the internal echo of a mind endlessly groping for a word that always remains just out of reach. Its last lines are:
folly for to see what—
seem to glimpse—
need to seem to glimpse—
afaint afar away over there what—
folly for to need to seem to glimpse afaint afar away over there what—
what is the word—
what is the word
This is a daunting message to ponder while shaving, though there is an undeniable rightness to this poem's proximity to a mirror. For it reflects, in summary form, one of the central paradoxes of art in our time: the impossibility of adequately expressing one's perceptions, and the obligation to keep trying. Now in his late seventies, Avedon has devoted a lifetime to the art of portraiture, and while acknowledging the genre's impossible task—to limn the true essence of an individual—he has persistently struggled to transcend it. "I've always worked out of a necessary sense of failure," he said recently. "But I work every day as if I could clinch it tomorrow."
Avedon has always sought out as subjects people—whether they are artists or poets or drifters or revolutionaries—who wake up every morning with that same internal imperative to persevere. His ultimate rendering of this theme is the series of portraits he made of his father in the years before his death. The project was rooted in childhood rage against a demanding and then distant father and grew from an adult desire for filial solidarity across generations, as Avedon had become a father himself. After many years with little contact, the photographer wanted to find a way to connect with his father, who had retired to Florida. As Jack Avedon was an inveterate trader, a numbers man, his son initiated a joint real-estate venture as an arena for their connection; after a couple of years Avedon asked his father if he could photograph him, which he did annually beginning in 1969 until his death from liver cancer in 1973. The pictures are unflinchingly candid and convey the poignancy of the struggle to survive with decency in the face of the inexorable as well as, for the successor, the pity of surviving a parent's death. While born of a son's need, in the broadest sense the series addresses the core truth of the human predicament, articulated with utter simplicity by Beckett in The Unnameable: " . . . I can't go on, I'll go on."
A quarter of a lifetime later, Avedon is still carrying on. His methods are no less rigorous, but the feeling in the late portraits has sensibly softened, as if the sitters—or the photographer—were more relaxed, permitting a clearer, smoother transmission of the message. Over the years, he has gradually eliminated every strategy that might make it easier to fashion an excellent portrait: unusual view points, hand gestures, sidelong glances, brutal unmaskings, naked skin, flamboyant costumes, sinuous silhouettes, and scores of other maneuvers he developed and richly employed. Avedon now demands pictures that are more natural, simpler, and deeper. He is striving to make them seem completely without contrivance, mere figments of the mind, stripped to the essence and willed into visibility—"as if," Eliot wrote, "a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on the screen."
Laureate of the invisible reflected in physiognomy, Avedon has become our poet of portraiture. His observations of our hidden life are recognitions, like images of one's ancestors whose resemblance to oneself is undeniable. The various facets of his character, transmuted through others, and the facets of others' characters, transmuted through him have merged into a kaleidoscopic vision of the human condition represented as a gallery of modern souls as intense and vivid as any ever achieved.