Saturday, November 7, 2009

Richard Avedon Retrospective: Celebrities and Models

Today, dressed in my best black-and-white outfit as a sign of homage, I visited the MOMA retrospective of Richard Avedon photographs. The works included in this, the largest exhibition devoted to the photographer since his death in 2004, can be divided into three basic categories: fashion photos, celebrity portraiture, and images from the big "American West" project that Avedon undertook in the early '80s.

It seems that everyone has been going just gaga about this exhibit, so is it wrong to say that I was slightly disappointed? The show felt small, for one thing: it advertises itself as "More than 200 Images," but about 75 of those images are 5-by-7 portraits of American political figures that Avedon snapped in 1976 for Rolling Stone, so unless you really like small photos of 1970s political figures, the ad is slightly misleading. There was almost nothing in the exhibition from the last 20 years of Avedon's career, and almost no fashion photography from after the '60s. But Avedon kept working up until the very end--I was moved to discover that one of the last photographs he took was a portrait of a young Illinois State Senator named Barack Obama.

So I felt that this exhibition showed a lot of the most "expected" Avedon images, ones that I had already seen on websites or in books, without offering much in the way of the unfamiliar-but-brilliant. I mean, I adore practically everything about this image--its composition, its style, its insouciance...

...but I can't say I got anything more out of it seeing it on a museum wall than I did when I first saw it online.

Furthermore, I couldn't help but wonder about the motivations for assembling an art show that is so full of images of famous people. Is this exhibit packing 'em in because we want to admire Avedon's artistry, or because we want to see pictures of celebrities? ("At least we know who these people are, and we can understand these photos," we think, "not like that weird abstract or conceptual stuff that's on the other floors of the MOMA.") When the curators chose which portraits to display, did they select them because of who posed for them, or because of how well they demonstrated Avedon's talent? One striking pair of photos shows Bob Dylan at two different points in time: in 1963 he is an earnest folkie in a flannel shirt, but in 1965 he has transformed into The Electric Dylan, skinny pants and wild hair and brooding attitude. The obvious question to ask is: how much of this is due to Avedon's skills (placing Dylan in the right settings, getting him to reveal his personality before the lens), and how much of it is due to the change that took place in Dylan between 1963 and 1965?

Bob Dylan juxtaposed (click to see it larger).

I guess these photos do get at Dylan's essence(s), though, as do other of Avedon's celebrity portraits. Another excellent juxtaposition hung a portrait of Katharine Hepburn next to one of Brigitte Bardot. Hepburn is all angles and bones and hardness (even the cartilage of her nose looks chiseled) while Bardot is all soft curves. Anatomy is destiny, Avedon seems to say--these actresses' bone structures accurately predict their onscreen personas.

And there is a photo of Dorothy Parker (see prev. post) in the '50s that fully captures the sad state to which she became reduced in her last years. She has worse bags under her eyes than anyone I have ever seen--and you know that she used to be a very cute young woman.

Detail shot of Parker's eyes (the actual portrait shows her whole face)

It's funny: the exhibition is set up so that it gives more weight to Avedon's celebrity portraiture than to his fashion shoots (the fashion photographs are all in the first, smallish, room, while there are four or five rooms of portraits). But because celebrity photography is such a sticky issue, I think it is easier to judge Avedon's artistry on the basis of his fashion work. When we admire his fashion photographs, at least we're saying "Ooh! Pretty!" rather than "Ooh! Famous!" Because they are pretty--and sometimes more than that, striking or strange or memorable. Think of the famous "Dovima with Elephants," or this other shot of Dovima, biting on a pearl necklace. You can see her moles and freckles and incipient crows'-feet. Her expression is extraordinary, indescribable. And there are very few fashion photographs that can compare to it nowadays, over fifty years after the fact.

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