September 19, 2013
The National Portrait Gallery in Canberra has an exhibition of the American photographer Richard Avedon (i923-2004)/This is the first Australian exhibition of Avedon’s work.
Avedon produced significant portrait photographs in the twentieth century. These were mostly intimate images of the key intellectual, artistic, and political figures of the late 1950s through the early 1970s.
Richard Avedon , self-portrait, gelatin silver print
The 1985 In the American West portfolio was a notable exception to the celebrity photographs. His portraits, overshadow his fashion work, which was the bread-&-butter of Avedon's career & also the work which brought him to public attention, initially.
Avedon was the first staff photographer for the New Yorker. Until Avedon the magazine used drawings. He also worked for such photograph-driven publications as Vogue and Harper's Bazaar. In American popular culture, this was where Avedon mattered.
However Avedon's life work is portraiture and his subjects were generally posed against a plain white background with no props:
Richard Avedon, Marilyn Monroe, 1957, Gelatin silver print
There is a sadness in this picture that undercuts the golden coiffure and glittering sequinned dress with plunging neckline; an emphasis on interiority or subjectivity.
Recalling the portrait session with Monro that took place in his studio on a May evening in 1957, Avedon says:
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.
Avedon photographed the point of convergence between actor and character, between the private self and the public role. The character is 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.
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.