Friday, August 21, 2009

Richard Avedon

Given what would be otherwise sympathy & interest in the writings of F. Scott Fitzgerald, one of his more unfortunate statements was to the effect "The rich are different." I balk at this statement, even if it were true. In & of itself the statement isn't so lame, but it is when it is used elsewhere by others, in which case the heaviness of it begins to sound creaky & moribund. One example, & my memory may be incorrect given the lapse of years (my childhood, spent in front of a TV) & the lameness of the source, was on the Merv Griffin Show, in which Merv Griffin asked Truman Capote, by then late & unproductive in his writing, just that question, "Are the rich different?" Truman Capote, by biographical accounts severely alcoholic & socially unacceptable to the "swans" of high society whom Capote had written about in novelistic fragments at this point, said, wittily, "Yes, they are different. They have better vegetables."

Truman Capote was a former collaborator with and later critic of Richard Avedon. Avedon, Capote & Alexei Brodovitch created one of the great photo books of the 20th century, Observations. Ultimately, perhaps, it is Brodovitch who is the great genius behind the book: Avedon's portraits are mixed with Capote's texts, all of which are determined by the graphic design (the first letter of each text must relate visually to the photograph, etc.). At any rate this is a great meeting of great talents meeting on the printed page. The book, Observations, also foreshadows what would be a model of Richard Avedon's presence in books & exhibitions: his portraits, overshadowing his fashion work, which was the bread-&-butter of Avedon's career & also the work which brought him to public attention, initially.

Avedon's portraiture dominates his exhibitions & catalogs. It is ostensibly "editorial portraiture" - no less commercial than the Dior New Look or "The Most Unforgettable Women in the World Wear Revlon" but it has the cachet of being of public figures, of the great & strange of the world, as opposed to the puppet-like world of models & couture. & I don't think anyone would question me on this, Avedon was smart: he had an eye on his posterity, on his skills being seen in a larger cultural sphere than the narrow world of fashion. The exhibits, from the 1977 retrospective at the Metropolitan to the 1995 "Evidence" at the Whitney were demonstrations of the extreme width & depth of Avedon's access to the various powers-that-be in the world along with umpteen & sundry most unforgettable women in the world, too, as more of an afterthought.

My sense of Avedon's separations between his "serious" & commercial work is not a novel observation (excuse the pun). Almost like a mantra, I have heard many people say, "Avedon is great, but I really like his fashion work." Such an idea informed the exhibit curated by Vince Aletti & Carol Squiers at ICP, in conjunction with the Richard Avedon Foundation.

As I understand it, Avedon began destroying vestiges of his commercial fashion past before his death - again, second-guessing posterity. For anyone who came in the remotest proximity of "Dick" & would be instructed to address him as such, this is perhaps not unusual, as a self-made star himself (played in the movies by Fred Astaire, no less, almost 50 years before Avedon's death) with a stronger will-to-power than your average photographer. I think of Avedon as a very conscious heir to the likes of Nadar. Both were self-made, liberal, & occupied a "public" sphere of mass media. Both courted a portrait clientele of great figures. & if anything Avedon's scope was remarkably wide: from artistic characters from the 1950s such as Ezra Pound (which is one of my all-time favorite images ever) & Marianne Moore, to the various characters involved in the Watergate trial. One does indeed see a calvacade of our age's notables. One could question the making of distinctions between his theatrical, somewhat morbid portraiture & his fashion stories. How far is the vanitas portrait of Duke & Duchess of Windsor from, say, any of the images of Dovima, which occupy an even more hermetic sense of grandiose glamor, with a creeping sense of despair somehow in them?

Not to diminish the portraits, but none can approach the serial images of the constantly transforming Suzy Parker in terms of presence, or the mock-elegance of Dovima with the elephants (itself an echo of the Elisofon image of Gloria Swanson reprising her Sunset Boulevard persona in the ruins of the Roxy Theater, a star among faded grandeur). The "Paris by Night" sequence is an elaborate cosmology of a mythic, glamorous, chic, sexy Paris. Such a Paris is the opposite of US Puritanism, with its intimations of gourmet foods, perfumes, & sex, louche nightclubs, physical pleasures, couture . . .

Avedon was also a great pupil of the work of Martin Muncacsi - models run, jump, & laugh, the image is experiential, it contains an element of chance. But in a thoroughly post WWII economic boom kind of way. It's special. It's great. Something (the beauty of the girl? the clothes? the photographic experience itself?) is exclusive & beckons us to want more of such privileged giggles & leaps.

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