Washington and San Francisco

Rosalind Solomon and Richard Avedon

The Corcoran Gallery of Art and Sander Gallery; University Art Museum, Berkeley and Stephen Wirtz Gallery

“I really disapprove of photographing celebrities or known beauties,” Walker Evans once said. “You just get the celebrity ready-made in front of you, push the button, and you’ve got something everybody wants to see. It’s much too easy to do. . . . The moment you do something at an editor’s request or because that person is famous, you’re doing journalism. And the trick is knowing the people who are getting done, not doing the picture at all.” So much for Richard Avedon and Rosalind Solomon, whose reputations as photographers depend on just the sort of picture Evans rules out. Evans goes too far when he implies that it is not only the subject’s celebrity but the picture itself which is “ready-made.” He is suggesting that anybody could make pictures with such subjects, which isn’t true. But I bring up Evans because I think that when he criticizes celebrity portraits as “something everybody wants to see,” he touches a sore spot. He makes a point which Solomon and Avedon are both eager to refute or, failing that, evade. The point is that celebrities always steal the show. They certainly steal the four shows under discussion here.

Perhaps it’s unfair to say that Solomon and Avedon want to evade this fact, but they at least try to play it down. Avedon’s retrospective combines four earlier shows—the Minneapolis Art Institute, The Museum of Modern Art, the Marlborough Gallery, and the Metropolitan Museum—allowing examples of every kind of photograph he has taken to stand side by side. “I’ve always known what the connections were among the different kinds of photography I’ve done,” he told me. “This retrospective lets me show the integration in my work.” The implication that all aspects of his work are made equal by the Berkeley retrospective just isn’t born out when you look at the pictures. When Avedon puts his anguished portrait of Ezra Pound on the wall near an early series he took in a mental institution, your eye goes straight to Pound, and stays there. The same thing happens with Solomon’s work. From 1977 until 1979, her husband held a position in the Carter administration, which gave her entrée to subjects ranging from Joan Mondale to Chief Justice Burger. Although she includes other bodies of work in her shows—some nudes, a series from a women’s prison, etc.—it is the political portraits that get our attention.

I suspect, in fact, that they are what got her the shows. She seems defensive about this. In a vein similar to Avedon’s, she told me, “Let people make whatever they want of the Washington portraits. They’re only a part of my work.” Maybe. But the Corcoran can hardly have been indifferent to the fact that these pictures are a drawing card. They are Solomon’s edge over other photographers of comparable experience and talent. The truth is that they are the best work in these two shows. With every other subject she approaches, she seems to be figuring out how to apply the lessons of these portraits. But even if her other work were as good, I don’t think it would have earned her such a prestigious show. It’s not an accident that Solomon should get this break in Washington, where the celebrities she covers are local celebrities.

If Solomon is uncomfortable about having the Washington portraits singled out, it may be because she herself has done so in the Corcoran show. She panders to the public taste for them by including two pictures of Jimmy Carter despite the fact that both are technically inept. One of them is so bad that its inclusion is really outrageous. While all the other photographs are from 21/4-inch negatives printed full-frame, this one is a crude, toneless blow-up of only part of a 35mm. This is just the sort of thing we expect to find not in an art museum, but on the front page of a newspaper (one owned by Rupert Murdoch). When she pulls a stunt like this, Solomon makes us realize that Walker Evans is definitely right about one thing. All celebrity portraits are journalism. Each comes with its own, built-in caption, an irremovable text which our recognition of its subject creates. We may now be able to look at Nadar’s portraits purely as photography, as art. But if either Avedon or Solomon want their work to have the same effect, they will have to do what Nadar has done: wait 100 years.

A celebrity photographer can never successfully evade the issues Evans raises. The issues are there, inherent in the pictures, and the pictures must try to refute Evans somehow. At the very least, the photographer has to wrest the portrait away from the subject and make it his own. He has to prevent the viewer from saying only, “Oh, that’s a picture of so-and-so, the famous celebrity,” and make him say as well, “Oh, that’s a picture by so-and-so, the famous photographer.” This both Avedon and Solomon try to do. What such an ambition means is that the photographer has to declare a kind of limited war on his subject. The celebrity’s stock in trade is his personality, his recognizability, his presence: his public image. But the photographer wants the photograph to be his own image. A struggle is bound to ensue. It is a fact well known in both war and physics that two bodies cannot occupy the same picture space at the same time.

Solomon’s battle plan is to steal a march on the enemy, to sneak up on her subject or outflank him. The way she does this is by making her picture of the setting as much as the celebrity. What makes each picture recognizable as hers is her sense of the Washington mise en scéne, her ability to show us how officialdom and stateliness look when you get close. They are in these pictures a backdrop never quite big enough to hide the human foibles and disarray behind the scenes. When Chief Justice Burger poses monumentally with his hand on a law tome, Solomon steps back to reveal that His Honor wears Hush Puppies. Crestfallen, La Belle Lance poses for a portrait while a silver swan glides behind her on a silver tea table, and sings her Washington swan song. Behind Rosalynn Carter on the plane’s overhead rack hangs a garment bag. Strangely bloated, it is really more like a body bag, the poltergeist of Air Force One, the ghost that haunts grave responsibilities. The pictures which may be Solomon’s best are those where the place itself sits emptily for its portrait and is the celebrity. Beyond the harp poised genteelly on the edge of the rug in the Oval Room, somebody’s coat is stuffed under a chair. Above a metope carved with angels, kraft paper is stuck to an acoustical ceiling with gaffer tape.

Where Solomon’s strategy is to outflank her subjects, to undercut their dignity by her eye for homely details and vulgar touches, Avedon’s is to meet them head on. His celebrity portraits are a massive frontal attack on his subjects. They always have been. Of all the portraits in the museum at Berkeley, the most powerful seem to me those of Buster Keaton and Fred Allen. In these two dead-pans, photographed early in his career, Avedon found the perfect subjects. They are the master prints against which all the other portraits ask to be measured. Fred Allen especially. Allen looks out at us in that way characteristic of all Avedon’s portraits, and waves a little flat-fingered wave. No matter what subject Avedon is working with, or how sober the expression on the face, there is always something wistful and comic about the picture, as there is with Allen. Having your bare face hang out there under Avedon’s hot lights reduces you to a kind of klutziness that’s both pathetic and endearing. The portraits all turn out like Fred Allen’s little wave, a little boy’s wave from the back of the train, funny and sad and brave.

Who is he waving to, anyway? The Berkeley museum is a great, multi-layered atrium, an open central space that takes in almost the entire building. Allen’s picture is down on the lowest level among other early work. But maybe he’s waving good-bye to the man up at the diagonal end of the building/and of Avedon’s career—the man who has a private room there: Avedon’s father, who is, in Avedon’s portraits of him, dying of cancer. Or maybe Fred Allen is waving good-bye to us, because he’s leaving himself. The truth is that all the pans in Avedon’s portraits are dead. Avedon shot them himself. He surrounds all his portraits with that old phobia about photography and murder.

The way Avedon fights it, the war against the celebrity has aristocratic rules. His technique refines it into a form of single combat, a fight to the death in which photographer and subject meet on the pure field of a white, seamless backdrop. Portraiture becomes a mortal sport for gentlemen, a duel, a contest that will reflect honor on both participants no matter who wins. The point is not to lose face. But underneath the chivalry and simplicity of it all, the fact remains that Avedon is trying to kill you. He is trying to do you in. Each picture probes to find out where its celebrity subject is vulnerable, for showing that these subjects are vulnerable is a way to gain the upper hand, to win control of the picture. Look at Fred Allen. Avedon shot his portrait against a white seamless using a Rollei, a 21/4-inch format like Solomon’s Hasselblad. When Avedon blows up that negative life-size or larger as here, the result is deliberately grainy. But the grain doesn’t read against the uniform white field of the seamless. It only shows on the figure. It therefore becomes a characteristic not of photography, but of humanity. My God, no wonder the man died. He was made out of sand! He’s disintegrating before our very eyes. These intimations of mortality are most noticeable in small extremes, like the fingers that are shaped into that little, flat, funny wave.

Avedon goes around shooting all these famous people. He even shoots his father, who becomes famous by dying for the camera. One way or another, all his subjects must be fashionable. The fashion statement he makes himself with the portraits of his father may be tinged with Oedipalism. But then, fashion always has to be outré, shocking, in order to succeed. “Soft murder” is, as I recall, a phrase that Susan Sontag used for photography. Sometimes Avedon’s murders can be a bit rough, though, as with his father, or the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. He made tears well up in their eyes as if each were, in the portrait, attending the other’s funeral. (Legend has it that Avedon bullied them about whether what they had done with their lives was really worth it.)

This is what’s so mesmerizing about Avedon’s celebrity portraits. He has gotten the most glamorous people in the world to come to him year after year to have their characters assassinated by his camera. The whole business raises once again Walker Evans’ question. Would we care whether the people in the portraits are dead, that Avedon has had the gall to shoot them, if they weren’t all celebrities we feel we know? The feeling that we know these “public” personalities is of course nonsense, the sheerest of illusions, as is their death in the photographs. These things only happen on paper, the subjects’ lives as celebrities, and now their deaths as well. The portraits serialize an endless human interest story. They are, as Evans says, mere journalism.

All Avedon’s successes result from bold ideas. Shooting portraits against the white seamless in bright, even light was one. Putting real peasants in fashion photography was another. Even the installations of these shows are singularly dramatic. A reason the Berkeley museum appeals to him is that its vastness permits lavish experiments with scale. Walking through the museum’s doors, you see a panoramic portrait of the Chicago Seven, several times life-size, but so far away that it has about the same dimension it would if you were holding the 8 by 10-inch in your hand. When you walk across the building to it, you find that an adjacent wall is filled with the portraits from Rolling Stone actually printed 8 by 10-inches. Elsewhere, you have to squeeze sideways into a stairwell so narrow that you can’t bend over enough to view the pictures there, which have been hung at chest level intentionally to frustrate you. Avedon’s San Francisco dealer gets into the razzle-dazzle swing of things by doing his entire show from four portraits of one man, painter Francis Bacon.

This ideas on which Avedon’s career has been based are perhaps too bold. They lack subtlety. They are not so much ideas as concepts, the sort that come out of group journalism where Avedon has spent his working life. There editorial ideas have to be sleek, adaptable, strong enough to withstand a lot of handling and not lose their momentum, their impact on a mass audience. Ideas with this sort of stripped-down force come less from real thought than from what usually goes under the name of “brainstorming.” It gets to be a habit of mind. For all their impact, I’m not sure that Avedon’s ideas amount to what I would call a photographic style. They are more a form of stylization. Because of the nature of celebrities as subjects, Avedon has had to invent an abstraction that he could impose on them in order to get the desired response from us—not just “That’s a picture of so-and-so,” but “That’s a picture by Avedon.” But beyond either of those responses lies another, one which says simply, “That’s a human being.” The portraitist who has that as his goal, and doesn’t concern himself with creating a distinctive look, a visual signature to make himself known, will in the end find a photographic style without having looked for one.

If there is an alternative to Avedon’s kind of portraiture, it is the one Walker Evans created when he took a camera down into the New York subways. More than an alternative, the pictures Evans made there of people riding the trains seem a contradiction of Avedon’s portraits. Where Avedon’s are plate camera mostly, Evans’ are 35 mm. Where Avedon’s are posed, or directed like a movie, Evans’ are candid, even secret. Where Avedon’s lighting is elaborate, meticulous, exquisite, Evans’ is available light from bare, dim bulbs. Where Avedon has maximum control, Evans had almost none. Despite all the differences, however, one can’t help wondering whether what Evans achieved in the subway isn’t what Avedon has really been after. Avedon himself no doubt sees the reductionism of his portraits as an attempt to render his famous subjects simply human, to break down their celebrity and leave only the mortal remains in the picture. In spite of my compunctions about the portraits of his father, they take a further step in this direction by giving up the known subject altogether.

Now Avedon has taken on a project which goes further still, one to photograph ordinary people in the West. Only one portrait from this new series is shown at Berkeley. It is of a boy who has an incredible, androgynous beauty. Because his lips are a little pursed, he gives the impression of being someone overly fastidious, even prissy—the sort of person who never lets anything yucky touch him. This look gives us pause since the boy is holding up, as if for us to admire, a decapitated, eviscerated rattle snake. The image of mutilation stops cold any quick impulse we might have had to stereotype this boy, whose expression now mixes sweetness with cruelty, a fey innocence with a hard intent. We notice that the purse of his lips is echoed in a slight squint, a narrowing of the eyes, whose lines seem to contain some emotion just the opposite of that around the mouth. The more we look at this boy, the more ambiguous and imponderable he becomes. Avedon’s portraits may go it alone as photography yet.

Still, my feelings remain conflicted. I don’t know whether I want to end on a sympathetic note, or a harsh one. Avedon’s portraits do have a great power, even if I mistrust and resist that power. His work forces me to struggle with my feelings, as is (I hope) apparent here. Yet I finally cannot help feeling that it is Evans who has the true genius, the one truer to photography. The greatest styles in an art do not result from tour de force. They aren’t the product of clever invention or artifice. They strike us not as brilliant, but as inevitable. They are the ones that make us feel the image has come about without choice—that it could not have been any other way. This is the quality which Evans’ subway portraits have for me. In them photography submits to conditions laid down by life itself, the conditions under which subjects actually live. Evans makes art out of circumstances. He makes his style out of the limitations that circumstances impose. Taking his subjects as he finds them, he has to take his chances with every picture he makes. The power of the result is that it is inseparable from the subjects’ lives. No other way of working can hold a candle to that.

Colin L. Westerbeck, Jr.