‘My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They are readings of the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues.’
(R. Avedon, 1980)
San Francisco Museum of Moder Art (SFMOMA) donates a wonderful retrospective to Richard Avedon – with 200 photos the biggest in the US since his death in 2004. It has been curated by Helle Crenzien for the Lousiana Museum of Modern Art, Denmark. It provides an excellent overview on his large work.
Probably the best known Avedon photo series is the one of 1967 with the British fashion model Twiggy: Avedon was already a well established fashion photographer but Twiggy was only 17 years old and at the beginning of her career. These iconic photos shaped our collective image of the 1960s.
Richard Avedon enlisted in 1942 in the merchant marine after dropping out of high school in New York. He started to do identity photographs of the servicemen there. In 1945 he was discovered as a fashion photographer by Alexey Borodovitch, who was at that time artistic director of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. Since then he was doing photography for all important fashion and news magazines, like Look, Vogue, Life and so on.
He revolutionized portrait photography: Avedon tried to avoid the typical photo positions and gestures: The 1965 portrait of young Bob Dylan is a good example for this strategy. ‘When the sitting is over, I feel kind of embarrassed about what we have shared. It’s so intense.’
He also left the process of the photo-making visible: Often you can see the ends of the white studio background. The negative’s black margins and its writings on the printed picture became his signature trademark.
The centerpiece of the exhibition is the large scale group portrait of Andy Warhol’s factory staff of 1969. There are several versions in various dimensions of this work, but this large one is certainly the most impressive. (You could also see it on Art Basel Statements 2008.)
For some viewers it may be surprising that Avedon did not just fashion photography only, but also a lot of commissioned reportages about everyday people: About the civil rights movement, about middle class people, about mentally ill. I think in these photos you can see the constantly curious Avedon, who really wants to know about a person by studying his surface.
Richard Avedon was obsessed by his work: ‘I believe in maniacs. I believe that you’ve got to love your work so much that it is all you want to do. I believe you must betray your mistress for your work, you betray your wife for your work; if you are only headed for money and that you hope for satisfaction somewhere else, you‘re headed for a lot of trouble. And whatever replaces vodka when you‘re 45 is what you‘re going to be doing.’
I am sure it is hard to be married to a maniac like that – nevertheless, the photographs are excellent.
by G. Radwanovsky
Richard Avedon: ‘Photographs 1946 – 2004 at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art until 29 November 2009