ART & COMMERCE

Defining beauty through Avedon
By Philip Gefter, nytimes.com, Sept. 18, 2005 RICHARD AVEDON honored women. For nearly half a century, taking photographs for the top two fashion magazines in the world, Harperʼs Bazaar and Vogue, women were the subject and the target of his insistent, yet sympathetic gaze. From the models in his fashion tableaux to his later, unembellished portraits of artists, writers, intellectuals, socialites and hardscrabble workers in the American West, his regard for the fully realized individual remained constant. At first, Avedon practiced taking fashion pictures of his beautiful younger sister, Louise, and throughout “Woman in the Mirror” (Abrams), a new collection of Avedonʼs pictures, that respectful posture turns all women into the potential sister — an undeniably beautiful, but deeply kindred spirit. There is an erotic component to some of these pictures, but he seems less concerned with menʼs arousal than with the subtle cues women take from one another, a view that places sexuality in a larger constellation of human qualities. After being discovered by Alexey Brodovitch, the art director of Harperʼs Bazaar, Avedon began taking photographs for the magazine in 1947, the year Dior introduced the New Look and just two years before Simone de Beauvoirʼs “Second Sex” was published. The
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New Look was modernity incarnate and the sculptural lines and cosmopolitan flourishes were perfect for Avedon, who seized upon it to make cinematic images in which the models inhabited the clothes like characters in a movie. And, as if Simone de Beauvoir were looking over his shoulder, Avedonʼs photography animated women with spirit and determination. Through Avedonʼs eyes, female beauty is not viewed with distrust, as a collection of wiles and veils that can manipulate, obfuscate or seduce. In one photograph, the model Liz Pringle stands effortlessly poised in a boat, with the manner of an heiress in a breezy movie from the 1950ʼs. She holds a cigarette and looks our way with the sly grin of a secret shared, as if we are among her closest friends. You know the picture is all about the clothes, but the soignée sophistication of the scene is what draws you in. He had many muses, among them Dovima, whose name alone conjures an exotic creature of myth. (In fact, Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba created her name from the first two letters of each of her given names.) In one Avedon picture, she wears a dress by Jacques Fath, and it appears as something sacred and ceremonial, Avedon distilled a Dovima assuming the stature variety of elements of a pageant queen. into a simple and His photograph of Penelope distinct visual Tree is as much a portrait of signature: the element the real society girl as it is a of surprise, for model wearing the latest fashexample, in his most ion. The pants suit was a new famous picture of concept at the time, the bell Dovima with the bottom an emerging style; elephants at the his picture is playful and Cirque d’Hiver in free-spirited, and she strikes Paris, the large, a Pippi Longstocking note bulbous creatures unconventional but all grown forming a backdrop of up, cosmopolitan and top-ofunharnessed animal the-moment, out in the world instinct against which on her own terms. the elegance of high And his portrait of the writfashion stands in er Renata Adler is stripped of dramatic relief. decoration, leaving the anatoCMNS 375

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my of her face, the intransigence of her posture and the gravity of her braid to represent a modern-day Athena, goddess of the intellect, taking our measure as much as we take hers. “Dick had a very particular taste for what he thought was a beautiful woman,” said Norma Stevens, executive director of the Richard Avedon Foundation. Paging through the book in her New York office, she stopped at a portrait of a seemingly
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downtrodden young woman from his After being discovered by series “In the American West.” “To Alexey Brodovitch, the art him, Debbie McClendonʼs fragility and director of Harper’s Bazaar, tenderness resembled a Botticelli.” Avedon began taking Movie history has permanently photographs for the married Richard Avedon to Audrey magazine in 1947, the year Hepburn thanks to “Funny Face,” starDior introduced the New ring Fred Astaire as the fashion phoLook. The New Look was tographer Dick Avery, who is based on modernity incarnate and the Avedon. In the book, “Richard Avesculptural lines and don: Made in France,” Judith Thurman cosmopolitan flourishes were writes that “Funny Face” is an artifact perfect for Avedon, who of a remote, lost civilization. Three of seized upon it to make its purest pleasures have not dated: cinematic images in which the Hepburnʼs face, Givenchyʼs couture, models inhabited the clothes and Astaireʼs dancing — all pertinent, like characters in a movie. the dancing, in particular, to Avedonʼs work. She equates Astaireʼs buoyancy to Avedonʼs pictures, the classical discipline with which the dancer, like the photographer, made the artificial and rehearsed seem effervescent and spontaneous. Avedon distilled a variety of elements into a simple and distinct visual signature: the element of surprise, for example, in his most famous picture of Dovima with the elephants at the Cirque dʼHiver in Paris, the large, bulbous creatures forming a backdrop of unharnessed animal instinct against which the elegance of high fashion stands in dramatic relief. Or glamour in his picture of Sunny Harnett, the top model in her day, at a posh European casino; he made her shimmer like a Hitchcock blonde in a Madame Grès dress. Or wit in his picture of Carmen stepping off the ground, as if by wearing a Pierre Cardin coat you, too, could be walking on air. He played a stunning hand with visual onomatopoeia as well: his portrait of Katharine Hepburn with her mouth opened elicits the very sound of her distinctive accent; his portrait of Louise Nevelson, with her heavy eyeliner and sculptural jewelry, turns her into one of her own works of art; and his portrait of Marella Agnelli, in which her elongated neck conjures Modigliani, her entire form as graceful as a Brancusi. Despite decades of imitators, Avedon has proved inimitable. His curiosity fueled his imagination. He anticipated the tone of each era with a sophistication that was precision-cut in the stratosphere of art, fashion and culture at which he so naturally, and tenaciously, hovered. He never stopped experimenting with the photographic image and, always, his pictures reflect a regard for women that was truly debonair.

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An interview with Richard Avedon
By Nicole Wisniak. Egoïste, Sept. 1984 Nicole Wisniak: Do you think a photographer is a person obsessed by the fact that things disappear? Richard Avedon: I canʼt generalize. All that remains of my father is my photograph, that is to say film, but I donʼt think thatʼs why I photograph. I see all the time — I very often donʼt listen. I can be in conversation with someone and at a certain point, stop hearing what is said, start pretending to listen. My good friends know when that happens. The way I see is comparable to the way musicians hear, something extra sensory. Not judgmental. I donʼt differentiate between an idea of what is beautiful and what is not. What I see is a reaffirmation of the many things I need to feel. It has to do with obsessive qualities, not explainable. I am a natural photographer. It is my language, I speak through my photographs more intricately, more deeply than with words. N.W.: But this overdeveloped eye is sometimes pitiless. You reveal in your portraits facets of character that people would perhaps have preferred not to show. Do you think it is possible to hide oneʼs self in front of your camera? R.A.: I am not necessarily interested in the secret of a person. The fact that ‘There is no truth in there are qualities a subject doesnʼt photography. There is no want me to observe is an interesting truth about anyone’s person. fact. Interesting enough for a portrait. My portraits are much more It then becomes a portrait of someone about me than they are about who doesnʼt want something to show. the people I photograph. I That is interesting. There is no truth in used to think that it was a photography. There is no truth about collaboration, that it was anyoneʼs person. My portraits are much something that happened as more about me than they are about the a result of what the subject people I photograph. I used to think wanted to project and what that it was a collaboration, that it was the photographer wanted something that happened as a result to photograph. I no longer of what the subject wanted to project think it is that at all. The and what the photographer wanted to photographer has complete photograph. I no longer think it is that control, the issue is a moral at all. The photographer has complete one and it is complicated.’ control, the issue is a moral one and it
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is complicated. Everyone comes to the camera with a certain expectation and the deception on my part is that I might appear to be indeed part of their expectation. If you are painted or written about, you can say: but thatʼs not me, thatʼs Bacon, thatʼs Soutine; thatʼs not me, thatʼs Celine. N.W.: Picasso answered to that saying about Gertrude Stein: “Thatʼs not how she

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was when I painted her but thatʼs how she will be sooner or later.” R.A.: Thatʼs pretty grand of him. On the other hand, now that she is dead, visually that is all she is. It is a terrible responsibility for a photographer. The subject was there — the subject can never say — that is not me. It is even worse in the case of photojournalism, when the photograph is taken without permission. At least I ask,
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“May I do a portrait of you?” ‘I used to believe that I It is complicated and unresolved in could only photograph what my mind because I believe in moral I knew and understood. I responsibility of all kinds. I feel I understood artists, people have no right to say, “This is the way of high achievement, power, it is” and in another way, I canʼt help beauty, at least I thought I myself. It is for me the only way to understood those things. breathe and to live. I could say it is the I said once in an interview nature of art to make such assumptions that I had no idea what it but there has never been an art like was like to be black or what photography before. You cannot make it was like to be a factory a photograph of a person without that worker, and so I couldn’t personʼs presence, and that very presphotograph them. Of course, ence implies truth. A portrait is not a it was not true. ... As a likeness. The moment an emotion or matter of fact, the people I fact is transformed into a photograph have photographed for this it is no longer a fact but an opinion. book seemed more generous There is no such thing as inaccuracy in with their selves, less a photograph. All photographs are acguarded, often easier to see.’ curate. None of them are truth. N.W.: You have been working for many years on a new book on the working class. Did you begin this new work because you were fed up with the elite? R.A.: No, not at all. I have been working for many many years as a portrait photographer, on portraits of Americans. But I used to believe that I could only photograph what I knew and understood. I understood artists, people of high achievement, power, beauty, at least I thought I understood those things. I said once in an interview that I had no idea what it was like to be black or what it was like to be a factory worker, and so I couldnʼt photograph them. Of course, it was not true. But it took me a long time to know in my stomach that people share the same concerns, and that confronting an oil worker is very little different than say, a writer. Itʼs just a question of language. As a matter of fact, the people I have photographed for this book seemed more generous with their selves, less guarded, often easier to see. N.W.: But not anybody is a good subject for you. How do you choose your subjects? R.A.: Very few people are suitable subjects for me. In the same way that not everyone looks like a Modigliani or would have been a correct model for Julia Cameron. Itʼs a difficult question because I donʼt formalize these things. I am interested in connections between people of remote experience, in similarities that are unexpected,

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unexplained. When you see this new book, you will see a man, a worker in Colorado, who has qualities exactly like James Galanos. Galanos is a dress designer in Beverly Hills who dressed the wife of President Reagan. The man in Colorado is a factory worker who wraps packages. That facinates me. If you look at the portraits of the “Chicago 7,” you will find similarities to The Mission Council. Paradox, irony, contradiction — these interest me in a photograph. Contradications within one person: the contrast possibly between the gentleness and the delicacy of the hands of a subject and the suspicion and the lack of trust on his face. N.W.: There is also a contradiction in your work. Your fashion pictures and then your portraits, which seem to show a more tragic side of life. R.A.: I donʼt think one is at all a reaction to the other, which is a view sometimes held about Penn, Arbus and myself: that the serious, or if you want, the “tragic” quality of our portraits is a reaction to the artificial demands of fashion. I think there is a tendency to categorize photographers with assumptions that would never be made of writers. If an author writes a comedy or a tragedy and then an essay or is politically concerned, no on questions. No one asks why a philosopher writes a novel or a poem, or why Picasso did ballet costumes. That generosity is not extended to fashion photographers. Iʼve had to deal with that always — less now — but still. Fashion photography is not an art that can grow indefinitely. It is constantly taking and dealing with the surface of things and that doesnʼt attract me anymore. When I was young, my needs as an artist were exactly the needs of the magazine I worked for — Harperʼs Bazaar. They published what I wanted to express. (That went on for 20 years — Embarrassing!) At a certain point, the necessities of fashion magazines were no longer mine, no longer interesting. As a commercial photographer, fashion is a necessary part of my commercial existence. I find it easy. It underwrites and supports my life and other work that I prefer to do. N.W.: To be a photographer — was it that most obvious way to earn money in the early fifties? R.A.: My father wanted me to be a businessman because he had suffered terribly as a Russian Jew in New York City at the turn of the century. He had a terrible life as a child, one of six children deserted by his father, sent to an orphan asylum, he had a tragic quality and an exaggerated sense of danger. He wanted me to be prepared for what he calls The Battle in the ways that he felt one had to be prepared: through education, physical strength and money.
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I am a complete composite of my mother and father. She began to be a sculptress at 75, working with granite and marble. My mother loved the arts, was politically active, and always encouraged me to be an artist. She was and is completely supportive. During the depression she stole lilacs. She says about artists, “He is the real thing” or “Heʼs not the real thing” and thatʼs that. Anyway, photography was the only thing I could do. I have been a photographer since at least the age of 13. My family was in the business of fashion and my parents subscribed to Harperʼs Bazaar, Vogue, and Vanity Fair when I was a child. I saw fashion photography and theater portraits by Steichen, Munkacsi and Man Ray in each issue and I began to imitate them by photographing my little sister. She was very, very beautiful, two years younger than I. Her beauty was the event of our family and the destruction of her life. She was treated as if there was no one inside her perfect skin, as if she was simply her long throat, her deep brown eyes. I think she believed she existed only as skin, and hair, and a beautiful body. Interestingly enough, I had not looked at a photograph of her in 30 years, and only last week opened a package of my earliest pictures, taken when I was an adolescent. Every family thinks their daughter and son are the most beautiful children in the world, but my sister Louise, (I photographed her from 14 to 18), was truly a world class beauty, and I never knew it until last week. What I discovered was that she was the prototype of what I considered to be beautiful in my early years as a fashion photographer. All my first models: Dorian Leigh, Elise Daniels, Carmen, Marella Agnelli, Audrey Hepburn, were brunettes and had fine noses, long throats, oval faces. They were all memories of my sister. My sense of what was beautiful was established very early through the way in which I experienced her. N.W.: Where is she now? R.A.: She is dead. She died in a mental institution at the age of 40. She withdrew completely in her late adolesence. N.W.: You mean she was killed by her beauty? R.A.: Depersonalized, maybe. Destroyed, possibly; I think really by the power of her beauty. It is as isolating as genius, or deformity. Unlike genius, it is one of the qualities that removes you from the world, but offers no real compensation. I have always been aware of a relationship betweeen madness and beauty. Does this help to
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‘I never felt that anything I ever did was good enough and frankly, a large part of me still thinks exactly that way about everything I do — it is not good enough — nothing is ever even near good enough. But that’s not a regret. I just feel that I know more than I can put into my work.’

explain some of what appear to be contradictions in my work? Itʼs only one part. It had nothing to do with the discipline of work, and other things, but you will find if you look to the portraits, that connection. A possibility of failure and danger and poetry in life — and the close line. N.W.: Since 40 years, you have photographed painters, politicians, artists, workers, famous and unfamous people. What feeds your curiosity for people? R.A.: I donʼt think analytic explanations suffice but there is a little bit of truth in everything, in Freud, in Pavlov, in genetics, in enviroment. I grew up with a first cousin, two years older than I. I was deeply in love with her from the age of 4 until I was 18. It was only with her that I could breathe freely. We were precocious from the start. When the Cocteau movie “Les Enfants Terribles” came out, we knew we were those children. We saw it over and over. Our feelings for each other were so intense, so forbidden so conspiritorial. I knew for myself — I canʼt speak for her — that if I was ever to complete myself, grow up and out into the world, we had to shatter our perfect hothouse. In all the years that a young man first experiences life apart from the family, I knew only one person. I think my entire character was formed through that powerful relationship. And my life has gone on, one person at a time. N.W.: This relationship with one person at a time is replayed in your studio, when you do a portrait? R.A.: Oh yes! Intensely — but in photography it is an unearned intensity. For example, I have never become a friend — or very rarely — of anyone I have photographed. I would never, for many many years, enter a room after photographing a celebrated person and assume that if he were there, he would acknowledge me. The kind of embarassing intensity of these peculiar intimacies and needs, the needs of the subject to give something to the camera and to me, and my need to take that in order to express myself — is complicated and unearned. I have never felt that I had the right to presume that there was anything but the picture between us. Itʼs less than an hour, and itʼs over — completely. N.W.: Havenʼt you ever been seduced by some of these people? R.A.: As my book Portraits was being completed, there were certain artists whose work had affected me, whom I had not photographed, and one of them was Jean Renoir. Renoir lived in Beverly Hills and I went to him. His home looked like everything Iʼd always thought a home should be. It looked like south of France. It
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didnʼt look like Beverly Hills. There were flowers in and out of the rooms and sunshine coming through the windows. And a long table in the middle of the room. A long table at the center of a house has always had great meaning for me. When I arrived, I was shown to his bedroom. He was naked, being helped to dress, completely unembarassed by my presence. He was old and quite sick at the time and he walked with difficulty, with a walker. There was something so moving about his face and about his life and his work and what he stood for. He was one of the last people I felt in awe of. When the sitting was over, (in those days I worked with incredible intensity, I mean my heart would pound out of control while I photographed), Renoir said, “Wonʼt you join us?” So I sat at the table and some friends arrived with vodka and a Sunday cake and Renoir sat down. Behind him was a portrait of him as a child painted by his father and the potteries he had made as a child guided by his father. A young Czechoslovakian director who was there visiting started to talk with Renoir about Film. What happened to me used to happen to me very often — I froze, I couldnʼt speak or think. I felt inadequate. I thought — what can I say or contribute to anything that happens at this table. Well, actually nothing so grand was happening. I considered myself very good at disguising my feelings and I knew there was no necessity for me to speak. I could legitimately be a quiet person. But I was paralyzed inside. Smiling, trying to appear comfortable, thinking — what right do I have to be at this table? I came to do my photograph, I should leave. I am not a friend of the Renoirs, this is Sunday. Renoir stood to go to the bathroom and I used that occasion to say goodbye to everyone. As I walked to the front door, he came our of his bedroom with his walker which sort of blocked my way. And we were stuck there, in the narrow hall, in this confrontation. I extended my hand and said, “Monsiour Renoir, thank you very much for allowing me to photograph you.” And he looked into my eyes and spoke, and Iʼll never forget his words, “It is not what is said that matters, itʼs the feelings that cross the table.” I froze my face. I walked to the car and wept. Imagine a man in his eighties, sick as he was, knowing what was happening to me at the table, and to care, and to say it. Well, thatʼs my kind of standard for human behavior. To be able to be that present in each moment. The quality of paying attention that he had, and then the compassion. I think there is not much more to life than that story: to be that age, surrounded by your fatherʼs works of art, to have created your own, to live in a house with sunshine falling through the windows, and a wife, and a jar of vodka with spirals of lemon rind in it, and friends and your own son who has become a teacher and his children sitting with the grownups, on Sunday — and to still pay that kind of attention to a stranger.
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N.W.: Do you have any regrets? R.A.: I never felt that anything I ever did was good enough and frankly, a large part of me still thinks exactly that way about everything I do — it is not good enough — nothing is ever even near good enough. But thatʼs not a regret. I just feel that I know more than I can put into my work. N.W.: Does it make you suffer? R.A.: No. Not that. It makes me work. N.W.: What makes you anxious? R.A.: The unexplainable shifts of my feelings. From moment to moment I can shift from someone who thinks he can deal with everything to someone who canʼt think. It has nothing to do with reality. I like to believe itʼs chemical. I used to think there was a Freudian answer. (He laughs). What I do know about myself is that I am best in intense short encounters. I mean the way in which making pictures is very intense and short, compared to writing. Everything I do, it seems to me, has passion about it and then suddenly the drop and then withdrawal, which is not necessarily depression. It can be planes or sleep or doing puzzles, but I have to pull back. I am not capable of living on my most intense level for a long period of time. I think I might crack. Thatʼs probably why I still do a bit of fashion photography — to relieve the tension. N.W.: Did you ever feel it would have been possible for you to become insane? R.A.: Maybe, when I was young, yes. At certain periods when there were real life pressures, rites that seemed impossible to meet, I thought: I am not going to make it. But I always had the ability to escape into reality, into work. Many things have called to me in my life, many things in all areas of my life, and they have found their proper home in my photographs. N.W.: But not on your face. You look very serene. ‘Paradox, irony, R.A.: Itʼs because, percontradiction — these haps, the storm approaches interest me in a photograph. my pictures instead of my Contradications within one face. Thatʼs a funny thought. person: the contrast possibly (He laughs.)

between the gentleness and the delicacy of the hands of a subject and the suspicion and the lack of trust on his face.’

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