In a labyrinth like display at the FOAM at last the Avedon retrospective has opened, after a well-orchestrated media campaign. An exceptionally busy gala night – I have this from a reliable source, being myself at work as the event unrolled – preludes to many more visitors for the duration of the event. People flock through the gates by the hundreds.
Pushing through a Freudian split in the somewhat forbidding black curtains that shape the entrance, the visitor is immediately directed upstairs, past a huge portrait of the master - with his trade mark intense gaze and luxurious hair wave - and into his first fashion work, 40’s and 50’s. Then on to the portraits, the celebs, the unknown in the American West, sidelined by “the family” series on powerful Americans in a small raised gallery, almost an afterthought in the installation but definitely worth the climb. More celebrities, one needlessly huge print of Andy Warhol’s friends at the Factory, on to a room of his father’s senescent close ups, down or up (?) a narrow flight of stairs to the last quite poignant self portrait series in 2002. His hair gone completely white, his gaze for once subdued and inward looking, possibly a premonition of his impending end. Through the split again, outward onto the street as financial self-preservation instinct keeps me away from the lavish display of huge hard cover books, I am left to ponder on my recent impression.
As most of the photographs are very well known, the added value of this latest exhibition must be looked for in farthest corners, and the few surprises. So as a rule one should look at the smallest prints best, since they are usually likely to be vintage, and thus most revealing. The larger they get, the more they become ads or interior decorations, often digital, not always good in fact. They are just spectacular, but not insightful. Where is all the obsessive perfection that the master notoriously exacted of his printers in black and white? So many prints are hopelessly burned out in the highlights, hands and heads eaten away by the white background, surely not what they were meant to be? I am puzzled. Photography from the 20th century is largely analogue, and its modern translation through digital means, albeit a legitimate – even commendable - effort must be attempted carefully. Especially now that the master isn’t here to guard the quality, we shouldn’t cut corners but work rigorously on the best tonal rendition possible.
A tiny room inside the room in the first section reveals some of the most surprising, modern and exciting images of the whole show, things he took on the streets of Italy in the forties. They seem to contain, condense and express all he was about to become: a primitive yet incredible departure from all photographic convention before him. Possibly the starting point to which all artists instinctively long to return after their parabolic exploration of their medium at the realization that innocence and perception were the greatest gifts, ultimate perfection being unattainable. They are doomed to look for the impossible, while longing for what they have left behind.
So it would seem it was in desolate post war Italy, in the ruins of Sicily, that Avedon comes in contact with the theatre of the streets: the loud, desperate, human histrionics of survival as expressed by these quintessential dramatic actors, the Southern Italians. All this he captures in stunningly rough black and white, wonderfully oblivious of technique, the action caught with split second accuracy. Their intensity and facial expressions seem to me to affect all he did later on. A sense of drama that was to befit well a world of iconic people – artists, actors - that didn’t seem to shy away from poses that would nowadays feel possibly quite presumptuous. These people either took themselves really very seriously or had achieved a natural iconicity that allowed them and Avedon to get away with it, creating a larger than life graphic universe.
Look at the fashion, the first fifties things. The models are not that different from other contemporary photographs, it is the setting that breaks the mould. Street artists again, elephants, pyramids and camels, I find myself focusing my attention more on the surroundings than on the model and least of all on the clothes. So I suspect he was a subversive at heart, but a very cunning one. A young genius, a rebel at heart but not the confrontational kind. Rather the handsome well groomed boy, duly respectful of these older ladies, the fashion editors of Harper’s, who were to usher him into the world of High Paris Fashion, and also make him a lot of money. Still he wasn’t to forfeit his talent to the needs of the market but to nourish it for a very long career, making his style bolder and bolder as far as he could afford to in the different stages of his life and parabolic career. It isn’t at all about fashion, or anything else but his own photographic vision. This is essentially black and white – no colour on the whole show, quite rightly in my opinion – and very graphic. He knew how to use both motion blur and crisp sharpness, shape and compositions and a very special mastery of the frame, made more evident by the edge of the plate printed with some images. The placement of a figure in the picture is eloquent in itself, a very discrete yet powerful way of expression that really is his Avedon’s own. Also purely photographic is his understanding of focal length in close up portraits, how he would allow wide-angle distortion almost to creep in unnoticed and yet enhancing. What he got was control on the perception of depth, either by using white backgrounds to cancel it or grey to enhance it, while limited depth of field would make the subject almost pop out of the surface of the print like in Marilyn Monroe’s portrait for instance.
As to the psychological aspect of his portraits I don’t think Avedon had any more insight in his subjects than the next guy, nor would he have cared for it. A photograph being by his own admission a registration of the surface, his eyes were all he needed to do what he wanted: powerful photographs. So we may chose to see what we want in their expression, much of our feelings are imparted to the image by notions that are not inherent to it. Most look uneasy, some puzzled, some anxious, it is the process of photography and not the photographer that has psychological insight. Those who recognize this and surrender control to the medium take the prize: revealing pictures.
None more so than the “family” series. Here they are, in their prime, some of America’s most powerful people. Familiar as they may have become later, it is daunting how most seem to show what was to become of them, and I am not sure it is all down to suggestion. Quite rightly, when he is dealing with neither models nor show business people, Avedon let the subject express itself subtly, thus truthfully.
As I watch the colourful crowd that parade along the pictures, some so histrionic themselves that it seems as if they have been dressing up to be a part of the show, I wonder about which if any legacy is to be imparted from the master other than his photographic purity of intention. His graphic signature is otherwise so strong that attempting to drink at the same well is highly at risk of becoming a meaningless citation of style. After all he was a man of the last century, and we must move on.