Richard Avedon: Beyond the glamour ghetto

  • by Robert Nesti, EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
  • Monday July 20, 2009
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The name Richard Avedon conjures up images of impossibly leggy models and other ethereal creatures, or austere portraits of iconic cultural figures who gaze directly at the viewer, having momentarily descended from their remote perches to be photographed by an artist as famous as themselves. Avedon's remarkable six-decade career, from the boy wonder of 1950s and 1960s glossy magazine photo spreads and fashion fantasias at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar, to mature, socially engaged artist is limned with nearly 200 stark, black-and-white photographs of striking, deceptive simplicity in Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004, the first major retrospective of the artist's work since his death in 2004.

The exhibition, which feels more spare and compact than the number of works would suggest, is on view at SFMOMA. Though it's one of several excellent photography shows the museum has mounted recently, we may have to wait for more time to elapse before we get the definitive Avedon retrospective.

It's worth noting that Avedon made some of his last pictures in San Francisco only months before his sudden death of a cerebral hemorrhage at age 81. On assignment for The New Yorker (hired in 1992, he was that magazine's first staff photographer), he shot a portrait of Sean Penn here, saw movies at the Castro Theatre, ate at Zuni and sampled some late-night jazz.

Organized chronologically, the show begins in earnest with the early fashion photography ("Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d'Hiver, Paris, August 1955" being the most famous image) and moves through the celebrity studio portraits to Avedon's attempts to extend his oeuvre beyond the glamour ghetto.

Martin Munkasci, the Hungarian-born, former sports photographer who galvanized fashion photography by introducing a kinetic athleticism and "ballon" to a previously static medium, was a formative influence. One can easily discern his profound impact on Avedon's divine confluence of movement and style in the vitality and approachability of a lithe, long-limbed Veruschka in motion, Jean Shrimpton on the run in a full-length evening dress, or more directly in the buoyant "Homage to Munkasci, 1957," in which a woman, carrying an umbrella, is caught in mid-air as she steps off the curb onto a city street.

The breezy optimism of Avedon's 1950s and early 60s photography is not only a reflection of the tenor of the times, but of a man whose career was opening up before him. He transmits a jazzy sensibility in a shot of himself jitterbugging with Twiggy; and an exuberant Suzy Parker and Robin Tattersall, roller-skating together in front of the Place de la Concorde in Paris, look as though they stepped out of an Astaire/Rogers musical. While they may be completely fabricated scenes, they're infectious and make you want to join the party.

Yes, there's a cavalcade of the famous and the infamous such as the murderer Dick Hickok and his father; a parade of political figures and power-brokers, the least compelling aspect of the show; as well as artists, writers and performers including a stunned Katherine Hepburn with exaggerated high cheekbones, a young Bob Dylan, a smooth and creamy Truman Capote before the bloat induced by ego and alcohol, the publicity-shy Robert Frank, naked poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky embracing, and a wall-size tableaux of the denizens of The Factory, nude and clothed, along with a blunt photo of Andy Warhol's scarred torso.

Avedon has been around a long time and widely imitated, which may explain why his work seems immediately familiar. But how much does one learn about these men and women from his photographs, and would we be as interested if the subjects weren't famous, accomplished or glamorous? A partial answer lies in In the American West (1980-85), a series for which he photographed ordinary residents made extraordinary by the master's unflinching attention. Larger than life-size, set against an unforgiving, stark white background, harsh, unadorned and scary in their intensity, these startling images of unknown ranchhands, petty criminals, carneys and waitresses constitute a gallery of hardened, fierce old souls, worlds away from the Paris runways and New York intelligentsia.

Unflinching also describes the artist's self-portrait, which, surprisingly, is included in this tough crowd. (It's one of several self-portraits that chart the ravages of age.) Taken in 1980, it's an image of a consummate director, a man at the peak of his powers. Intently focused, trim, with a thick mane of hair and a bundle of energy, he evolved into the comparatively subdued, white-haired fellow we see in the final gallery.

Still, with some notable exceptions, his fashion pictures remain his most seductive. Despite the superficiality of the content - they were a calculated sales pitch for couture - they're simultaneously an invitation to the dance and a meditation on mortality: the exhilaration before the fall, the ephemeral nature of beauty, evanescent moments of youth, grace and loveliness all captured for posterity by Avedon's camera.

Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004, through Nov. 29. Info: www.sfmoma.org or (415) 357-4000.

Robert Nesti can be reached at [email protected].