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Raw Glamour: Reviewing "Richard Avedon: Performance"

Updated on May 13, 2019
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When I'm not being a photographer, a dancer, or making jewelry, I write. Specifically art history. I plan on writing about other subjects.

"Richard Avedon: Performance" as a whole

This immense book creates a glowing tribute to Avedon's photography and lays out how the man captured people in various moments. Moments that emerged out of a mixture of elegance and candid behavior.

Raw Glamour.

The Book's Design

Beginning with a modified diptych (possibly triptych) format of two hardcovers, the book begins with a trio of pictures featuring a famous person posing while Avedon (according to the credits) uses his camera to record the now reproduced images. The first cover is Rudolf Nureyev relaxed and smiling, the second has Sophia Loren with this vacant expression, and behind that cover? A heavily made up Judy Garland smoking a cigarette. The book's final photos and back cover maintains this pattern (and in a simplified diptych style) of a person posing for a somewhat obscured Avedon. Intentionally or unintentionally, the book's covers uses these photographs to recall Diego Velazquez's court painting Las Meninas. In a sense, Avedon was a court photographer of famous people.

Find the photos I mentioned, and you will understand the connection I made.

"Las Meninas" {{PD-US-expired}}
"Las Meninas" {{PD-US-expired}} | Source

This Tome's Rhythm

This retrospective is mostly of Avedon's black and white photographs, but there is the occasional color, such as a publicity photo of Cate Blanchett in her role as the title character in Elizabeth, her blue eyes and red hair popping out of the page. Sometimes there is a combination, such as a burst of color coming from a writing tool scrawled on a black and white portrait of Elizabeth Taylor. Occasionally, the photos have numbered frames that show they came from film processed in a darkroom. I think these additions contributes to the book's theme of raw glamour.

There is a rhythm to this book. Portraits contrast and compare against each other, such as pictures of clowns and dancers performing and emoting dramatically (or humorously). An apprehensive Bob Hope stands in color while next to a monochromatic Jon Stewart who, with a hand, contorts his face in tired agony. Others, such as Charlize Theron, mimic poses reminiscent of Classical sculpture (Ancient or Neo-Classical, you decide). Portraits of heavily made up performers acting out a scene is adjacent to a close up portrait of Tilda Swinton staring at you with possibly only foundation and powder on her face. Avedon gave what would be a considered a facial flaw a sense of strength and dignity, such as his pictures of Robert Mitchum and Chet Baker. Even his pictures of nudes shows no sense of vulnerability. All of this is presented in a large coffee table book so you can see and feel everything.

Turning the pages of this book, it made me think about the genre of promotional photography. When one sees promotional photographs, one does not think about the photographer who shot them. In a way, Avedon, besides Annie Leibovitz, is probably the most famous promotional photographer of them all.

Taking in the emotional quality of Avedon's Photography

Contemplating Avedon's work reproduced in a big coffee table book was the equivalent of seeing The Shining in a theater. Afterwards, smaller reproductions will will feel anticlimactic.

Avedon's photographs could be sharp and detailed or blurry. Such as scenes of actors and acrobats (famous and not famous) performing, which made Avedon the human equivalent of a wildlife photographer.

Occasionally, there's famous people looking back at you, so it ends up being a staring contest. The expressions vary between neutral, guarded, occupied with themselves, welcoming, warm, open to interpretation, enigmatic, humourous, pleading (that's what Humphrey Bogart comes off as) charming, judging, poking fun at themselves, strange, or confrontational or vulnerable such as "Ralph Fiennes as Hamlet". Fiennes's eyes are the keystone of this portrait. Same with Liza Minelli and the Beatles, whose photographs also appear in a diptych format. Buster Keaton's eyes practically glow as he stares back at you. They call to mind Sumerian votive offerings. Going back to my observance of how some expressions made by people Avedon shot can be opened to interpretation, I find that the photographs of people with ambiguous expressions accidentally referencing the Mona Lisa's famously small smile.

There is a comfortable atmosphere here, but possibly on the surface level, for I heard from subjects who claimed they felt uncomfortable with the end result. Other pictures are downright unnerving such as a portrait of Hitchcock with his eyes rolled back and praying hands and "The Three Crooks" who jump while far away and wear makeup that makes their faces resemble something demonic.

They are all performing for the viewer.

Not all his pictures are of people in this tome. There is a photograph of a glove tied to a ribbon (I think it's a ribbon), and there is no explanation for it. While nice, but if it was not included in Performance, it would have not affected the book's overall theme.

Just imagine variations of this painting.


Writings by, and about Avedon

Besides his photographs, essays by different people who knew him remember Avedon's all consuming love of theater, how he worked, and his ability to manage and choreograph the people he shot, as according to John Lahr. Lahr also recounted how Avedon dealt with people who had prejudices against him, or just didn't click. For example, Avedon didn't like it when Sharon Stone was already putting up a façade with no perceived depth and treated a session as a job. Furthermore, Lahr practically saw him as a pope for famous people, blessing them with his camera.

By the way, during my grad school years, I wrote that Avedon's photographs were similar to religious icons.

In another article, Mike Nichols revealed how Avedon treated models during a fashion show very badly, much to Nichols' regret. Instead of letting them perform, Avedon wanted something candid out of them and the models didn't know what was happening. In that essay, a story of two famous people is breathlessly told out in a reproduction of a newspaper article (featuring Avedon's photos) that details the clothes they were wearing as they appeared in public. As I mentioned earlier, Avedon was a wildlife photographer.

In her piece, musician Mitsuko Uchida wrote that he prefers to capture people in a rare, candid moment (much to her dismay), which probably explains why he did not click well with Sharon Stone. Details along with this article and other speculations I have heard that this book omitted, it wouldn't surprise me if some bad revelations may come out about him in the future. In another article, choreographer Twyla Tharp wrote about the neverending conflict between performer and camera. The end of the book culminates with Avedon's essay about how he photographed Charlie Chaplin and the resulting picture reproduced for the reader to see and contemplate.

The book includes a quote by Avedon observing that people constantly create idealized images of themselves for public consumption. I wonder how Avedon would have felt about social media. Would he have agreed with other people's deconstructions of Instagram and Facebook?

Beyond my observations, there are intentional art history references in this book.

In one article involving Avedon's connections with theater life, writer André Gregory mused at how theater at the time was stunted and bemoaned that people in this culture would not try new ideas and cited the challenging concepts put out by Fauvists and Abstract Expressionists as reasons that the theater world should come up with new ideas. Twyla Tharp, in her essay, compared Avedon's technique to Baroque and Impressionist painters with his manipulation of lighting. Indeed, I noticed he also knew when and when not to manipulate lighting.

You can buy the book here.

© 2019 Catherine


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