According to photographer Anthony Snowdon, a viewer, when looking at a picture, should not be able to tell who the photographer was. That may be true about his own photographs; he was wrong, however, when it comes to the work of Richard Avedon. Many of his photographs are instantly recognizable as uniquely his or the shots of someone imitating him. Mr. Avedon gave the world the portrait where the subject, often powerful and famous-- although that is not the case in his series "In The American West" when he shot unknowns-- is photographed looking straight into the camera without flattering lighting or camera angles before a white background. These models rarely smile although Janis Joplin and Willem de Kooning are two exceptions.
This latest collection of approximately 200 of Avedon's photographs is the catalogue that accompanies a traveling exhibit of the master photographer, which began at Denmark's Louisiana Museum of Modern Art and will close in San Francisco's Museum of Modern Art. It must have been a difficult assignment to select the images that are reproduced (so beautifully) here. Many of Avedon's most famous photographs are included although there were some that I had never seen before and some I missed seeing. (For example, I would have included the magnificent shot of Tina Turner that usually fills a museum wall when it is exhibited.) The one color photograph by Avedon here is the famous or infamous, depending on your point of view, of Nastssja Kinski and the Serpent (1981). Several fashion shots are included. My favorites are the two of the model Dovima-- with the elephants in 1955 and in front of the pyramids in Eqypt in 1951.
The photograph of Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg, naked and embracing, that was-- I believe-- the cover for an issue of "Evergreen" magazine in 1963 made the cut, as did Andy Warhol and members of the Factory (1969). Some of my favorites, although I cannot always say why, are the shot of Bob Dylan taken in 1963 where he looks to be about 13, (I think it is the tilt of his head that intrigues me) W. H. Auden standing in the snow in New York in 1960 and The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Photography doesn't get better than that shot.
Avedon always said that he just photographed the surface and that the viewer only gets whatever the photographer sees in a brief moment of time. He contended also that the photograph usually tells you more about the photographer than the subject. On the other hand, the writer Albert Camus said that we are all responsible for our faces after the age of forty. Some of these portraits cry out with Camus' message. I would nominate the image of Truman Capote (1974). The word "dissipated" comes to mind immediately. Contrast the Capote photograph with, say, those of the Dalai Lama and Salman Rushdie, from whom a sense of peace emanates. It is poetic justice that the artist Francis Bacon's own face takes on the grotesque shape of many of the faces in his paintings. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor (1957), looking into Avedon's lens, would make you believe that the rest of the Royals were right about them, that they were dreadful people.
Accompanying this great photography collection are essays by several writers and art and photography critics assessing Mr. Avedon's contribution to 20th century photography including Helle Crenzien, Geoff Dyer, Judith Thurman, Michael Juul Holm, Rune Gade, Jeffrey Fraenkel and Christoph Ribbat. If you do not read all the essays, do not miss Geoff Dyer's discussion on what has become Avedon's signature, the portraits where the models are in front of a stark white background where the people who posed for him, if not known to the public before they sat for him, were famous thereafter. The people included in In the American West series-- drifters, waitresses, coal miners, truckers-- are every bit as engaging as those of the rich and famous and are now just as immortal.