Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004Jeu de Paume
July 1 through September 27, 2008
Jeu de Paumes’s current exhibition represents the first complete retrospective of Avedon’s work since his death in 2004. The show, organized officially by the Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, Humlebaek, Denmark and the Jeu de Paume, with the collaboration of The Richard Avedon Foundation, New York presents an extraordinary display of the magnitude of Avedon’s talent and career. His work, organized chronologically through a series of seven separate rooms, emphasizes his most prolific and profound works; as an artist whose career spans more than six decades, the two hundred and fifty photos displayed present a mere glimpse of his career.
Known initially as a fashion photographer in the 50s and 60s, working then for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, Avedon’s earlier images reflect the post war, Art deco
period of Parisian fashion photography. The static models, always impeccably dressed in haute couture, appear as mere statues devoid of intense action, yet simultaneously caught in a moment of somber reflection. This series, captured in the same crisp manner and printed within a similar sized frame represents a commentary of fashion as much as the unveiling of a new photographic talent.
Avedon’s second series, Made in France
constantly fixates upon his then fashion muse, Suzy Parker. Her exquisite and intoxicating beauty transforms itself throughout Avedon’s prints, each time revealing a new dimension of the artist’s multi-faceted lens. At this point Avedon’s fashion photography departs from static to spontaneous as he discovers the true profundity of natural light; his images respond to the lush tonalities created by light’s constant permeation. This series presents a fascinating and rare display of Avedon’s original prints used for the engraving of Harper’s Bazaar. His constant notation and comments throughout all prints gives the viewer a glimpse of the artist’s genius ness at work. These intimate prints are characterized by their iconoclastic Parisian settings (café’s, avenues, monuments), each of which evokes a seemingly timeless mood.
Only upon entering into the third section of this exhibition do we recognize some of Avedon’s most memorable prints: his unmistakable portraits. The stark white background surrounding each person empties the composition, creating an almost clinical, psychological interpretation of the multi-faceted person depicted. Avedon naturally captures the inherent flaws and complexities within each human; instead of capturing a reality or truth, his portraits reveal an opinion. It is within this manner and style that Avedon continues to capture the human condition. The next forty years of his life (and the remainder of the exhibition) focuses on this pursuit, eventually transforming both Avedon and his style into an indisputable photographic hallmark.
The most impressive image, in both substance and size, is Andy Warhol and the Factory
(1960-70). This lateral frieze, spread across several adjoining frames implies a certain time lapse occurred, as double portraits appear within the frieze. The improvisational method that Avedon employed aptly reflects the artistic, social, and sexual revolution surrounding Warhol’s NYC Factory in the late 60s. The impressiveness of this frieze when witnessed in person is unmistakably shocking; Avedon’s spread of naked, life-size transsexuals surprises yet intrigues, disturbs yet fascinates. The balance is just enough to remain fixated in front of the frieze, all the while reconciling the difference of emotions felt.
The next decade of portraits, in which his 1976 presidential election campaign series The Family
was commissioned by Rolling Stone Magazine, and presents a more serious, almost traditional expression of portraiture. The impressiveness of this series rests on the number of portraits captured (in total sixty-nine), all of which hang in miniature form within a perfectly configured square. The format, like the subject matter, seems a conservative contrast to his traditional portraits.
The most moving and memorable of series remains at the end of the exhibition: In the American West
1980-90. The series, commission by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, TX took Avedon on a journey through seventeen states, capturing 752 people, and expressing, most importantly, the plight of the everyday American man. Isolated from their surroundings and detached from their professions, each portrait expresses the real depth and solitude felt in the human condition. Standing against Avedon’s iconoclastic white backdrop and devoid of overt reaction, each person conveys a hauntingly profound emotion, a feeling that resonates with each individual irrespective of difference. Standing in front of each enlarged black and white print, whether of a waitress or uranium driller, I was reminded of our indisputable and undeniable connection to one another, of the human condition and connection we all feel, and of our similarities more than our differences. I moved through the darkened, isolated room with chills, stepping out into the light with a profound realization that I had witnessed a truly remarkable exhibition; that I had a newfound perspective from Avedon’s ingenious retrospective.