listening to avedon in 1994

Looking at Richard Avedon's work is a lot like looking at the past. Even though he continues to photograph for the New Yorker (in one of the last weekly rituals of the photomechanical age), Avedon's style signifies a photographic time and sensibility long eclipsed in the world of flashy multimedia publishing. The stripped-down black-and-white classicism of his portraiture seems out of place in the hyped-up, color graphics of every magazine from Wired to Time. Maybe that's why Avedon has taken to words to plead his relevance. From panel discussions to an American Masters documentary (to be aired on PBS this fall) to a cassette tape that covers a variety of topics (including age and aging) 1, Avedon seems bent on setting the record straight on what he does, how he does it, and why it's important. But listening to Avedon is more than listening about Avedon. Articulate, sincere, and willing to cross examine his entire life, Avedon talks himself into the problematic heart of photography and his own photographic self.

Of all Avedon's recent testimonials, none is more concise or revealing as a short cassette-tape audio tour of his retrospective "Evidence" made for the show's last tour stop, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts 2. Culled from interviews with radio journalist and independantg producer Connie Goldman made over a 25-year period beginning in 1970, the audio tour of "Evidence" gets down to business early. After spending a few minutes discussing his early stab at reportage, Avedon tackles what he has been known to call his "serious work," the portraits. For the rest of the tape, from his Vogue portrait work through the set from "In the American West" and the photographs of his dying father, Avedon boils the issues of photography down to the issues of portraiture where the politics of the image are writ into the direct experience of one-on-one relationships. Avedon discusses photographic truth, authorship, and meaning not so much as parts of a theoretical discussion but as parts of himself discovered through the process of photographing others. That's why resolving these issues means more than winning a debate for Avedon; resolution provides him a measure of individuality and the wholeness of an artistic identity. What the MIA tape makes clear is how complex and confusing individuality and identity can be for someone who tries to find them from behind a camera.

One of the earliest quotes on the audio tour maps out the difficulties Avedon will struggle with for the entire tape. After revealing that "I still use the first camera I ever had, a Rollieflex," Avedon goes on to say that new technology doesn't interest him, what does interest him is "the person in front of me and the moment we share." Even though Avedon has since used other cameras (notably an 8x10 view camera), going on record as using the same camera he started with is code for I'm still the same Avedon, I've never changed. I have integrity as a person and a photographer. On the other hand, describing the photographic act as a moment shared with another person adds a constantly changing cast of creative partners who bring their own individuality to the built-in integrity of Avedon's single-camera identity. The result is a self that challenges the fine line between creative integrity and social interaction by insisting on having it both ways. Simply put, Avedon sees no contradiction in claiming his own artistic integrity while admitting that everything he has accomplished as a creative artist depends on the participation of others.

 Demanding he be seen as an artist is nothing new for Avedon; he's spent decades fighting the label "fashion photographer." Partly, this is because it's important for Avedon to claim his own identity as a photographic artist as opposed to constantly compromised and therefore non-existant self associated with "commercial work." In the MIA tape, Avedon bases his claim to being an artist on his "subjectivity," the notion that when we look at an Avedon photograph, whether of Dovima or Marian Anderson, we are also looking at Avedon. "I don't think that I've captured the essence of anyone that I've photographed," Avedon says, "I think I've photographed what I'm feeling myself and recognize in someone else." Like many photographers of his generation (Minor White and Robert Frank come to mind), Avedon believes that describing one's own feelings is the goal of every serious photographer. Finding these feelings is less about self examination than about discovering them through a photographic interaction with the world and its subjects—making photographs. "A portrait photographer," Avedon says, "depends on another person to complete his picture—the subject imagined—which in a sense is me." Based on the unpredictable complexity of photographic interaction, Avedon's idea of subjectivity is a complex social metaphor in which his self is inextricably intertwined with the self of his subjects and theirs with him. A recent publication Autobiography illustrates the situation perfectly: Even though the title suggests the story of Avedon's life, the book is filled with pictures of other people, as if Avedon can only describe himself through his descriptions of other people.

 If that sounds very close to a structuralist theory of identity it probably is; the difference being that Avedon's understanding of the self is based less on abstract theoretical principles than on palpable photographic events. For Avedon the shared moment, the moment of exposure, is all there is—the decisive moment as defining moment. Avedon explores it over and over again in his audio tour, each time extending his understanding of what happens in that unpredictable split second. The one point that never changes is that for Avedon the moment of exposure is a social moment. It's "not a picnic or a wedding" but an intense "unearned intimacy" in which the individuality of both photographer and sitter are engulfed in a visceral, "almost erotic" communion. The truth of these interactions isn't the truth of the sitter but the "truth of the moment" as fleeting and unpredictable as the expressions on his sitters faces. If we take him at his word, Avedon's portraits describes neither Avedon nor his subjects, but their interactions, the way the desires, expectations, and experiences of both photographer and sitter negotiate themselves during the split second of exposure, each enacting their understanding of the world through the opportunities of the moment.

 Avedon is very specific about what he brings to that moment—a desire for control. In Avedon's view, "[The sitter's] need to plead his case is probably as deep as my need to plead mine. But the control is with me." Control is the cornerstone of Avedon's understanding of his photographic self and subjectivity, the key to making his presence known in a photograph. Control means everything from final picture selection to what he admits as his "enormously manipulative" approach to his sitters during portrait sessions. Everything in Avedon's style, from lighting to white backdrop, serves to limit the variables of the portraits, making control that much easier. No matter how simple it looks, Avedon's apparatus of control—the editors, the retouchers, the assistants, the lights, the backdrop, the studio, the shutter release in his hand—is always there with him, the photographic equivalent of a power structure. When Avedon insists on control, he is enacting the power of the media system he represents, concentrating all of its manipulative control in his photograpic person. It's a gut-level photograhic reaction to the lines of force governing not only Avedon's own life but a large part of American social relations.

This state of affairs wasn't lost on his sitters. As in any portrait, it's not only what the sitters look like but what they are looking at that is important: in Avedon's case, his tremendous determination to control the outcome of the social interaction at the heart of the photograph. His sitters don't cede this power to him as much as they respond to it each in his or her own way. From Dwight D Eisenhower's sad, horrified recognition to Coco Chanell's spirited withdrawal to Charles Chaplin's derisive pan's horns to Marilyn Monroe's exhausted attempt at seduction to June Leaf's defensive self embrace, what we see in Avedon's sitters is the myriad ways individuals respond to power, especially the power of the media, and reclaim their own selves. Avedon's portraits aren't soothing—wrestling with power never is—but in the end they act as proof that power is fluid, contested, vulnerable to the vagaries of the moment and the unpredictable nature of human interaction. Avedon doesn't photograph his subjects' submission to his formidable power structure; he captures the ways in which their individualities survive in the face of insurmountable odds. Their survival is his artistic redemption, the very proof Avedon needs that he can survive as an artistic self against the same odds, against the same crushing demands of commerce. Avedon enacts the system he must struggle against; his sitters enact the struggle and the price it exacts. It's not always a pretty picture, but it's the one they create together, the true subject being neither Avedon nor his sitters but the dynamic of their social interaction.

Nowhere is the relationship between Avedon and his subjects more important or misunderstood than in the suite of photographs that make up "In the American West." Criticized for their spectacular rendering of Westerners and the fact that Avedon, an Easterner, has attempted to describe a West he has little knowledge of, Avedon responds by calling the Western portraits "a fiction, no more like the true American West than a John Houston movie." Actually, these pictures are documents not of Avedon or of the Westerners but of the drama they play out and seal at the moment of exposure. Within this photographic theater, Avedon plays the quintessential Easterner, a member of the media-elite, insider, self assured, in control. The Westerners respond with a cast of characters that revels in the combination of distrust, boredom, exaggerated freakishness, and outright anger they hold for the very media elite Avedon enacts, a culture they feel has mostly ignored or misrepresented them. By engaging Avedon's powerful Eastern persona head on, the Westerners managed to articulate a surprising and prescient resistance that has since spread from the West to the entire country as a reaction not only to the Eastern Establishment but all forms of centralized government control. Whether Avedon likes it or not, his determination to see himself in his pictures comes true, the hook is that he see himself through someone else's eyes and sometimes they don't like what they see.       

In the end, listening to Avedon negotiate the maze of photographic subjectivity is like listening to a parable of what we'd most like to believe about ourselves: that there is some way we can control the forces that shape our lives and that some sort of true self is possible even in the most intense of media environments. Complicated as it is, Avedon's notion of self depends on an interaction in which both the subject and the photographer establish some degree of integrity through each other, a point of view rapidly vanishing under the complete disappearance subject integrity (and sometimes the photographer's) through the technological onslaught of digital reworking. If Avedon rings most hopeful when he imagines how much our selves, photographic or otherwise, depend on working with others, he rings most true when he reminds us that real interaction feels like standing "naked with one another, raw, trying for something." Trying for something can take any form, but listening to Avedon reminds us that engaging the world in its own photographic descriptrion remains one of the most vital and complex—as easy as pushing a button and as difficult as recognizing a self within the temporal slipstream of an open shutter.

 Notes:

1. "Richard Avedon—A Sound Portrait," with Connie Goldman, National Public Radio, $10

2. "Richard Avedon: Evidence 1944—1994," produced and directed by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Minneapolis, MN, $5. Both tapes are available from the Minneapolis Institute of Art, Communications Department, 2400 Third Avenue South, Minneapolis, Mn 55404