About the Exhibition:

Richard Avedon: Portraits September 26, 2002–January 5, 2003 The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Special Exhibition Galleries, The Tisch Galleries, 2nd floor.

"Although Richard Avedon first earned his reputation as a fashion photographer, his greatest achievement has been his stunning reinvention of the genre of photographic portraiture. Featuring approximately 180 works, this exhibition will span the artist’s entire career, from his earliest portraits in the late 1940s through his most recent work. At the core of the installation will be a powerful group of portraits of many of the key artistic, intellectual, and political figures from the late 1950s through the early 1970s, including several large murals, perhaps the grandest photographic portraits ever staged." - from Exhibition notes

DFR: Daily Fashion Report

"Richard Avedon: Portraits" Click on above image to enlarge. All photos used with permission.

Richard Avedon’s fame as a photographer extends far beyond his illustrious fashion career, which began at Alexy Brodovitch’s Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s and continues to this day. He’s known for crisply focused, intensely lit black-and-white silver bromide images with white backdrops that force the specifics of a person’s physicality into the foreground. Rather than hiding flaws, Avedon tends to force them center stage. Wrinkles, bags under eyes, and other "undesirables" become the very things that render a character interesting, not plastic.

Presently on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art are 180 of Avedon’s independently made photographic portraits. And, though many of these images have been seen before—in magazines, books, on T-shirts, and postcards—it’s worth a trip to the Met to see the show live. The enormous prints are even cleaner than they look in reproductions, and the intimacy and power of Avedon’s work is amplified when one sees it live.

Photo of Andy Warhol (click on image to enlarge)
Avedon’s photograph of Andy Warhol fingering the scar on his belly where Valerie Solanis shot him, for instance, is eloquently shocking. The king of Pop and flesh are jarringly incongruous, and one can’t help but recoil a bit upon seeing his slightly flabby belly—particularly when his singular visage and famous white wig have been cropped out of the frame. Marilyn Monroe is gorgeous, of course. But Avedon shoots her looking stoned and spaced out in an evening gown, eyes wandering as she sits, bored and beautiful, waiting for the camera. Robert Oppenheimer, the creator of the atomic bomb, posed for Avedon as a fallen angel. Each of these iconic individuals appears tragic, and in so doing, restores a sense of their regular, mistake-making, pain-feeling humanity.

Roberto Lopez, Oil Field Worker (click on image to enlarge)
 Also on view are photographs from Avedon’s unsettling "American West" project of 1979, for which he traveled around rural America and made pictures of people with decidedly unidealized existences and physiques. He shot them in his typical, sterile fashion. The toothless, the obese, and the obviously unprivileged—subject to the scrutiny of intense light and no backdrop—gaze out from these photographs with a seeming defiance that is almost threatening. Roberto Lopez, Oil Field Worker (1980) from Lyons, Texas, for example, is an unflinching portrayal of a muscle-bound man who, though in need of a shower, is delicately handsome. His cheek and jawbones, in the modeling profession, say, would be worth something that would improve his rugged life. But esthetic pretensions are clearly not a part of Mr. Lopez’ existence. He will probably not a drink champagne after the shoot; he won’t show up again, in another outfit, in another issue of Vogue.
Avedon, a native New Yorker who was born in 1923 to Russian immigrant parents, grew up wanting to be a poet. He discovered his true calling while working in the merchant marines, where he was employed to take mug shots of thousands of people. In 1994, he was quoted saying, "I’ve worked out a series of no’s. No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no the seduction of poses or narrative. …I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us." And in Avedon’s studio, the thing in between is so life-affirmingly real that one can feel the real power of people—like Marion Anderson singing with her eyes closed, hair streaming across her face, or the pale, shirtless beekeeper letting his insects crawl all over his naked torso—just being themselves.

-Sarah Valdez
Sarah Valdez is an associate editor at Artnews Magazine. She lives in New York City. Read her other recent reviews: Herman Landshoff Exhibition at F.I.T.; First Assistants Show; Extreme Beauty: The Body Transformed exhibition at the Costume Institute and the Guy Bourdin photo exhibition at the Pace/MacGill Gallery.

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