Tuesday, October 08, 2002

N.Y. museum mounts Avedon show


Portraits span photographer's 50-year career

The Associated Press

        New York's first major exhibit in almost 30 years of Richard Avedon portraits reveals many works never seen in public - and the photographer's personal view of half a century of American history.

        Richard Avedon: Portraits, on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 5, illuminates Mr. Avedon's entire career in portraiture, from his earliest works in the 1940s through pictures created in recent months.

        The Met display is the first major showing here of Mr. Avedon's portraits since 1975, and will not travel beyond New York. Mr. Avedon, 79, worked closely with the museum in organizing the show. Most of the photographs are from his private collection.

        His portraits, most shot against a white background and none with typically posing or smiling subjects, are intense and seem to reveal something about the subject's character.

        Because Mr. Avedon chooses his subjects and does not do portraits on commission, the people pictured are all people who fascinate him, and that fascination shines through. In a sense, Mr. Avedon's own character is revealed through the characters he has chosen to photograph over the years.

        “The exhibit looks back at America from the period just after World War II and moving through the Eisenhower era, the McCarthy era. ... The political atmosphere of those times is very much implicated in the personalities that are photographed here,” said curator Maria Morris Hambourg, who organized the show with Mia Fineman.

        “We see (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer, who looks like a fallen angel. We see (singer) Marian Anderson and, opposite her, the Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution. You see the problem of racism implicit in that opposition,” Ms. Hambourg said. In 1939, Anderson performed a concert at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., after she was denied use of Constitution Hall by the DAR.

        The 180 portraits, organized chronologically and by theme, also include images of Marilyn Monroe, President Dwight D. Eisenhower, writer Truman Capote and painter Willem de Kooning. There are portraits of drifters and others the photographer met in the West, a series on Mr. Avedon's father and mural-size group portraits of artist Andy Warhol and the members of his Factory, and the Chicago Seven.

        In one of the very few times the Met has given its major galleries over to the work of a living artist, the sprawling show explores Mr. Avedon's evolution in portraiture.

        Works in the final gallery, most of which have never before been displayed in public, will likely surprise even the most avid Avedon fans for their more personal, naturalistic nature. The show's final photo, a triptych self-portrait taken several months ago, is in keeping with this more naturalistic, personal trend.

        Born in New York in 1923, Mr. Avedon began his career early,rising to fame as a fashion photographer. By the mid-1950s, his portraiture became as accomplished as his fashion shots.

        The show, which begins with one of Mr. Avedon's earliest portraits, a 1947 image of a Sicilian street child, moves quickly into a gallery of poets: W.H. Auden on a snowy New York City street in 1960; Ezra Pound, shirt open and eyes closed in 1958 Rutherford, N.J.

        “The first two or three pictures ... place the person in the world,” Ms. Hambourg said. But it's not long before white backgrounds take over, bringing the intensity of character for which Mr. Avedon was striving.

        “I want to make portraits as intense as people. I want your intensity to pass into me, go through the camera and become a recognition to a stranger,” he wrote to his father.

        In his quest for the intense, for somehow reaching beyond the surface of an image, Mr. Avedon quickly moved from a 35 mm camera to a square-format Rolleiflex camera and then to an 8-inch-by-10-inch view camera. Stripping away background, props and dramatic lighting, he achieved an extraordinary presentation of characterization.

        The larger format camera allowed him to stand beside the camera, face to face with his subject. It also allowed him to make huge crisp prints.

        “It's really sort of a face-off between the artist and his directorial abilities and the sitter and their personality,” Ms. Hambourg said. “A dialogue evolves, usually wordless, between the artist and sitter. The results are absolutely indelible.”

        In the '80s, Avedon shifted his focus from well-known personalities to the American West, where he began looking at the ordinary citizen, the person who serves coffee in a roadside restaurant, the oil field worker, the housewife, the drifters.

        The photographs are poignant in a way that many of Mr. Avedon's earlier works are not.

        The show is accompanied by a hardcover catalog, Richard Avedon Portraits, published by Harry N. Abrams. It features 50 photographs alongside essays by Ms. Hambourg and Ms. Fineman, and by Mr. Avedon himself.

       



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- N.Y. museum mounts Avedon show