Richard Avedon

The photographer who pushes our bellybuttons.

One of the many arresting images in The Sixties, Richard Avedon’s latest collection of portraits, is a famous photograph of Andy Warhol. The artist, looking either terrified or defiant, is peeling back a bandage to reveal the scars left by bullets from would-be assassin Valerie Solanas’ gun. The picture, however many times you’ve seen it, retains its creepy power. It also invokes a remarkably complex set of references, and so might stand as an emblem of the ‘60s–the decade and the book–for a number of reasons. Apart from Warhol’s own iconic status, his pose recalls a notorious moment of ‘60s political theater: Lyndon Johnson’s display, to a press corps as yet unaccustomed to familiarity with the intimate anatomy of presidents, of his gall-bladder surgery scar, which illustrator David Levine later rendered as a map of Vietnam. And Avedon’s book exposes a number of scars, both physical and spiritual: the disfigured face of a napalmed Vietnamese woman, the sores on a leper’s fingerless hand, the bent, swollen nose of a tired, defeated-looking Abbie Hoffman. This was a time that left its mark on people.

Scars are not all that’s exposed: Flipping through The Sixties you’ll catch glimpses of Warhol superstar Viva’s pregnant belly and fashion model Veruschka’s breasts, as well as (among others) dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s penis (impressive, flaccid) and satirist Paul Krassner’s (less so, half-erect). And then there are the bellybuttons: On one page Truman Capote, no longer the slender, bow-tied manchild Avedon had photographed a decade earlier, pulls open his dark shirt to show his navel, a winking eye in an expanse of pale flesh. On the next page the Fugs (Ken Weaver, Ed Sanders, and Tuli Kupferberg) in all their hairy hippie insouciance, mimic Capote’s pose. (The ‘60s, by the way, were not an era of ripped abs.) Not that Avedon’s omphalic interests have been confined to the famous. In the American West, his controversial 1985 exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas (published as a handsome coffee table volume by Abrams), features the exposed midriffs and naked torsos of drifters, truck-stop waitresses, and rodeo cowboys. Indeed, the bellybutton might be an apt metaphor for Avedon’s intimate, unsettling work. People who gaze at their own navels are called narcissists. What do you call someone who makes his living gazing at other people’s? A voyeur? A sadist? A control freak? Or an artist?

I t says a great deal about Richard Avedon, and about the civilization he has documented for more than half a century, that he has published a fat volume of pictures of other people and called it An Autobiography. Photography is a relentlessly objective art, ours is a relentlessly subjective age, and Avedon has meticulously organized his art around this paradox. He understands that self-exposure, an organizing principle of our politics and our culture, is a defense mechanism: The selves we shamelessly exhibit to the world are screens, and Avedon uses his camera to penetrate them. He catches Abbie Hoffman acting out for the camera–tongue protruding, middle finger in the air, “fuck” emblazoned on his forehead–but when you look at Hoffman’s eyes you see no joy, no mirth, no childish glee at pissing off the grown-ups. You see the calculation behind the anarchic theatricality of the New Left and also the sheer dread. When you look into the faces of Rose Kennedy or Henry Kissinger you see souls emptied by the pursuit of power. In the American West lays open souls crushed by the lack of it.

Avedon has done much to revive the portrait as a central genre of photographic art. His only serious rival is Irving Penn, and his epigones (whether they admit it or not) include everyone from Robert Mapplethorpe to Annie Leibovitz. Among his precursors are Julia Margaret Cameron, the great 19th-century British portraitist, and August Sander, who set out to compile a comprehensive visual record of German life between the world wars. But while Avedon’s portraits clearly represent his bid for artistic immortality–a bid he has assiduously devoted much of the past decade to mounting–they represent only one facet of his work. Since the mid-1940s, when he went to Paris to capture the revitalization of French couture–a moment captured in Stanley Donen’s 1957 film Funny Face, for which Avedon served as visual consultant, and in which Fred Astaire plays a fey, charming photographer named Dick Avery–Avedon has produced a staggering corpus of fashion and commercial photography. First at Harper’s Bazaar, where he was a protégé of the legendary editor Carmel Snow and her equally celebrated art director Alexey Brodovitch, and then at Vogue, to which he defected, for a million-dollar contract, in 1966, Avedon’s covers and spreads defined the frothy, exuberant spirit of American fashion photography in what will likely be remembered as its golden age. Along the way, he produced a staggering number of images that have remained lodged in media memory and adorned generations of dorm-room walls: Dovima and the elephants, Nastassja Kinski and the snake, Simon and Garfunkel as Gertrude and Alice (on the cover of their breakthrough album Bookends), Barbra Streisand chewing on a daffodil, and Joan Baez blowin’ in the wind. If you can conjure a mental image of Marilyn Monroe, William S. Burroughs, Frank Zappa, or Marianne Moore, chances are you’re thinking of an Avedon photograph.

Avedon’s ubiquity, the extraordinary variety of subjects and styles, and his willingness to shoot album covers, posters, and advertisements as well as museum-worthy black-bordered prints, have occasionally offended purists. Hilton Kramer, for instance, called Avedon’s 1994 retrospective at the Whitney (which produced a gorgeous book titled Evidence: 1944-1994) “the ultimate capitulation to celebrity, money and fashion at the expense of art.” But celebrity, money, and fashion have been, at least since the age of the Medicis, part of the ambience in which art is made–and also one of its favorite subjects. And anyway, to quote John Ashbery, “What need for purists when the demotic is built to last?” Photography, in other words, is an inherently compromised art form–populist, ephemeral, and easy. Anyone can do it.

In sifting through the profusion of images Avedon has assembled over the years, it’s hard to keep the categories distinct. And this may be the point. “Distinctions between reportage, portraiture and fashion have always seemed arbitrary,” the photographer told the London Times a few years ago “I’m one of those photographers who can address a camera towards anything that takes his interest, and I’m interested in many things.” There is remarkable continuity among Avedon’s celebrity portraits, his fashion layouts, and documentary work such as the pictures of Sicilian street children and Louisiana mental patients he took in the 1950s. And how would one classify the brilliant hoax Avedon perpetrated in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar in 1962–a series of garish, hectic, faux-tabloid shots of comedian Mike Nichols and model Suzy Parker cavorting through Europe? Is it photojournalism? A prank? A happening? A mess?

T he most powerful work in The Sixties also defies easy categorization. The endlessly reproduced images of that decade tend to come from television or photojournalism: marchers on the Edmund Pettis Bridge, children fleeing burning villages, police clubbing demonstrators in the streets of Chicago. And though Avedon “covered” the civil rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the Chicago Seven conspiracy trial, the pictures he took are deliberately decontextualized. In the American West leaves out the most striking fact about the West–its landscapes; similarly, the Vietnam pictures in The Sixties–taken during Avedon’s 1971 trip to Saigon–contain no lush jungles or crowded urban streets, no Hueys or hamlets or rice paddies. Rather than record the drama of Vietnam, Avedon invited his subjects–journalists, soldiers, aid workers, activists, and ordinary Vietnamese–to re-enact it. A picture of three American GIs and two Vietnamese women, the latter decked out in minidresses, heels, and a whole lot of hairspray, captures the shame, arrogance, and bizarre innocence of the American involvement. A few pages later, we see journalist Gloria Emerson with photographer Denis Cameron and interpreter Nguyen Ngoc Luong staging a movie still. And then, on the next page, the napalm victim’s face stops us dead.

Avedon is often accused of exploiting and manipulating his subjects, and of course he does. In 1974, he exhibited a series of deathbed portraits of his father, a New York clothing retailer, which struck many viewers (including Avedon’s son) as an act of unchecked Oedipal hostility. In Helen Whitney’s PBS documentary Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light, he is confronted by Sandra Bennet, who was 12 when he put her on the cover of In the American West in a halter top and denim overalls. She politely tells him of her self-consciousness and discomfort at seeing the picture, and he explains to her that, while the photographer and his model are in some ways collaborators, the power, the control, ultimately belongs to the photographer alone.

At the end of Whitney’s film, Avedon is heard musing on his relationship to Judaism, a religion that regards graven images as sinful. While he denies that he has ever been observant, Avedon confesses to vague spiritual leanings. His most recent work, a portfolio in The New Yorker (which hired him in 1992 as its first staff photographer) is called “Revelations,” and it consists of pictures of Indian pilgrims, Buddhist lamas, Catholic priests, and other believers. But these photographs, seen against the backdrop of Avedon’s protean career, seem strangely cold and disembodied. His is, in the end, a thoroughly secular imagination. The metaphysical confidence of the sincerely religious gives him nothing to work with–no secrets to unveil, no narcissism to refract. For Avedon, the camera is the true agent of immortality, which his subjects accept on his terms: at the cost of their souls. Avedon is Mephistopheles with a camera–an exemplary modern artist.