New York

Richard Avedon

Although I would like to, I cannot deny that Richard Avedon’s photographs are brilliant and often beautiful. Where I might disregard most fashion photography on the ground that it is shallow, and compensates for its general lack of mystery and insight with a theatricality that is silly at best and obscene at worst, Avedon is masterly at avoiding the pitfalls of this genre. At least this was so until the onset of the 1960s, when his work changed substantially. The pictures he made in cafes, parks, casinos, restaurants and limousines, before he retreated to the studio, are filled with a very sophisticated kind of irony, with self-mockery that is balanced so well against their hauteur that, while one knows Avedon must be a man who thinks, one cannot find any shred of belief.

In these pictures, which may be the richest of his career, the world depicted is patently artificial. The women who titter and posture and glare condescendingly as they step through the doors at Maxim’s are not noble or, necessarily, well-bred ladies, nor are they meant to seem so. They are meant to seem exactly what they are, models playing at being well-bred; yet they play with such elegance, zeal and authority that they commandeer the aura away from the real ladies they began by imitating. Avedon’s glamorous world is an entirely invented one, in short, but much more glamorous than any that really exists. As such it offers both an ideal elegance to which Avedon’s audience might aspire, and, at the same time, an exaggeration of and satire on that audience.

Of course, to idealize and to satirize are nearly opposite activities, and to do both in the same picture would be impossible if Avedon meant to be taken as any kind of moralist. Which certainly he does not, since he is only concerned with the superficialities of fashion—or so it has been commonly thought. Yet at least in his early pictures, clothes are only the starting point, and the general, fantastic excess of style which these pictures show seems as if it must mean something more than who’s wearing what this year. At the least, Avedon is always pretending that it does; thus in one 1957 picture, Carmen, Evening Dress by Patou, Au Reveil, he mimics Manet and has two sleek billiard players so intent on their game that they are oblivious to Carmen’s posterior, which is about to get their next shot. (Meanwhile, she’s about to keel over with ennui, and stares at the viewer with the most indecisive lust we’ll ever see.) And, in a 1954 photograph, Evening Dress by Dior, Rue Jean Goujon, Avedon has Sunny Harnett step out of a limo wearing an enormous bow on her hip and looking as if she’s giving herself as a birthday present to her escort.

There are enough allusions and pretended parables like these in Avedon’s early photographs to suggest that they are not just extraordinary and frivolous. Their sense is always of being eminently well intentioned, as if Avedon had started out with something to show, each time he went on assignment, but wound up having such a good time out on the town that night that his purpose got buried under the elations of high style. This idea is probably not accidental in his pictures, but a part of their meaning. For, it seems to me, it is the sense lingering behind his work of purpose buoyantly flung off that makes their stylishness seem so brazen and excessive and shocking. I don’t know whether this quality amounts to a lot, or simply indicates that Avedon was a closet moralist, a closet artist, early in his career. Embarrassed as he was, his story was of course one of unbelief. So filled with artifice is his work that artifice and exaggeration become the norm, all meanings relative, and the basic sentiment, the moral, obscure.

Avedon’s subsequent career was a movement first away from, then toward, belief. During the ’60s and early ’70s he boiled high, theatrical style down to an essence, so that the excessiveness he had needed many models and dresses and props to create before he could now get with a single shimmy of the hips from Tina Turner, or simply by having Verushka absurdly contort herself like a pretzel. The pictures of this period are visually stunning and considerably more vacuous than Avedon’s earlier work; in a way, he has given himself over to the elations of style, and, enraptured with his own virtuosity, has forgotten the old, rich tension between style as ideal and as absurdity that used to fuel his pictures.

It is in his most recent work, that which was shown at Marlborough Gallery two years ago, and which in the current show is represented by portraits of June Leaf, Renata Adler, Elizabeth Avedon and others, that Avedon means to show himself as a man of substance, not frivolity. (Accordingly the Met is supplying a press photo of Avedon, taken recently, in which he presents himself as a particularly handsome member of the Institute for Advanced Studies, so profound and conscientious is his gaze.)

The device on which his new work is built is the reversal of each aspect of Avedon’s previous pictures. Instead of models he uses “serious” women, even feminists; rather than dressing them in extraordinary costumes he has them wear their usual blue jeans; rather than having them leap and jump giddily and grin coyly or glare haughtily he has them face the camera with looks of the utmost frankness; moreover, he repudiates complicated pictorial devices—he just frames the women and that’s all—and even gives over to rough, seamed prints, which hang freely on the wall without glass to keep them from buckling. The whole idea is that Avedon is supposed to have become honest and frank now, to have given up artifice for insight into character. Indeed, one has more of a sense of character from these recent portraits than from any of Avedon’s earlier photographs of models, and, furthermore, these pictures are as beautiful as any he has done. It should be clear, though, that their honesty is utterly ersatz. What Avedon has done is simply apply plain devices to women who are as extraordinary for their stardom as Verushka was for her acrobatics. In this, he has equated the “seriousness” of Leaf or Adler with his models’ coyness; it is no more than a change in style—post-liberated fashion photography—that Avedon has worked, and it would be very dishonest had one really looked to Avedon for honesty to begin with.

Leo Rubinfien