Richard Avedon’s America
By PAUL LASTER, JUL 2015
Presenting two of the celebrated photographers important documentary photography projects—The Family, a series of 69 portraits of American power players that was commissioned by Rolling Stone for the bicentennial in 1976, and four big group portraits, including the mural size image of Allen Ginsburg’s Family—along with some images of Avedon early and late in life, “Richard Avedon: Family Affairs” constructs not only a story about a moment in American history but one about the man that captured that moment on film.
The exhibition at the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) in Philadelphia documents a tumultuous and transformative period in American history that coincided with a maturing period in Avedon’s career—one in which he made a transition from fashion photographer to social documentarian. Most of the pictures in “Family Affairs” came from the collection of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem, which mounted a similar show in 2014.
“The work featured in the exhibition is not Avedon’s fashion photography, for which he is generally known,” Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections at MHAJH, told Whitehot. “It’s what he called his personal work, which he began to make in the early-1960s. It came to maturity with the publication of ‘The Family’ in Rolling Stone magazine in 1976.”
“During that period Avedon was finding his voice. As he took on his own individual projects he became socially engaged,” Perelman added. “He was learning how to use his craft in a way to document the turmoil and the change of the times. Between 1969 and 1976 we see the height of the counterculture, the height of the sexual revolution, and the height of the new left. Then we transition into the Watergate era and the election.”
In January of 1976, Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner asked Avedon to document the upcoming presidential campaign. However, Avedon decided to make the project a broader examination of key figures in the political, financial, and intellectual leadership in America at an even more significant moment, the bicentennial. His series The Family, which was published in Rolling Stone in October 1976, just prior to the November national election, featured union leaders, government workers, business executives, political activists, and heads of media.
There are 69 portraits of 73 people in the series—shot in Avedon’s signature straightforward, close-up, white-paper-background, cropped to the edge of the frame style. Standout photos from the group in the show include Jimmy Carter, Cesar Chavez, Jerry Brown, Andrew Young, Felix Rohatyn, Shirley Chisholm, Katharine Graham, and George Bush—yet the images are all equally good in the way they objectively let the people in the photos subjectively tell the story of who they are. After years of directing his subjects, Avedon decided to let them do the work for him.
Besides the jumbo image Allen Ginsburg’s Family, the exhibition features smaller versions of Avedon’s three other big pictures: Andy Warhol and the Members of the Factory, The Chicago Seven, and The Mission Council. Five Warhol Factory members—or Warhol Superstars, as they were known—are nude in their photo, including Candy Darling, who was transgender. The Mission Council documents key government players in the Vietnam War, while The Chicago Seven shows anti-war protesters Lee Weiner, John Fronies, Abbie Hoffman, Rennie Davis, Jerry Rubin, Tom Hayden, and Dave Dellinger spread across three combined images.
Additions to the NMAJH show include a photograph of a 12-year-old Avedon with his colleagues in the YHMA Camera Club; an Avedon self-portrait as a teenager with classmate James Baldwin, both reflected in a mirror; Avedon with his large format camera, photographed by Ginsberg; an installation photo from Avedon’s 1962 exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution; documentary film footage by D. A. Pennebaker of the opening reception for Avedon’s 1964 show at the ad agency McCann Erickson; original copies of the October 21, 1976 issue of Rolling Stone, which features all of the photographs from “The Family;” and a 2002 large-scale self-portrait (a triptych) from 2002, when he was nearly 80 and still looking good.
A fascinating display of historical photography, as well as a dynamic use of the medium, “Richard Avedon: Family Affairs” offers an important overview of America during a time of great change. WM
Richard Avedon: Family Affairs is on view at the National Museum of Jewish History in Philadelphia through August 2, 2015. The exhibition is made possible by The Richard Avedon Foundation, From the Collection of The Israel Museum, Jerusalem Joint Gift of the Gagosian Gallery and the American Contemporary Art Foundation, Leonard A. Lauder, President, to American Friends of the Israel Museum, Jerusalem.
Paul Laster is a writer, editor, independent curator, artist and lecturer. He is a New York desk editor at ArtAsiaPacific and a contributing editor at Whitehot and artBahrain. He was the founding editor of Artkrush.com and Artspace.com and art editor of Flavorpill.com and Russell Simmons's OneWorld Magazine; started TheDailyBeast.com's art section; and worked as a photojournalist for Artnet.com and Art in America. He is a frequent contributor to Time Out New York, New York Observer, Modern Painters, ArtPulse and ArtInfo.com.view all articles from this author