Richard Avedon, ‘Sunny Harnett, evening dress by Gres, ‘Harper’s Bazaar’, September 1954′
I picked a really stupid day to decide to go to the Richard Avedon show at Jeu de Paume, ‘Richard Avedon; Photographies 1946 – 2004.’ The Tour de France ended yesterday, approximately 100 meters from the entrance to the museum, so the entire area was a mob scene. It was worth it though. After having braved our way through the carnival, the hapless tourists, and the fans equipped with made for TV banners, we found ourselves in a really well put together show.
Like most serious photo people, I’ve seen like a million Avedon shows, and they all seem to follow a kind of set formula. You must, as a curator, include some of the early fashion pictures (especially ‘Dovima with elephants‘), the 60s white background portraits (with the image of the Factory), ‘The Family‘, and ‘In The American West.’ This exhibition hit all of those notes. However, some of the selections within this formula were unexpected and well chosen: The early fashion pictures, for example, contained a series of Avedon’s original prints provided to Harper’s Bazaar for publication replete with crop and gutter directions; ‘The Family’ was presented as a grid of 8 x 10 contact prints; The Factory image was blown up to larger than life size and shown mural like on the wall; and many of the ‘In The American West’ miner pictures had a room to themselves with black walls and rectangles of light framing each print. All in all, a good show.
A few things occur to me though…
For one, much is made of Avedon’s skill as a portrait photographer – you often hear the argument that he is somehow able to bring out a subject’s true self. Avedon, in some measure, rejects this argument. One of the texts in the stairwell of the show, dated 1980, quotes him:
My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They’re readings of the surface.
But he still maintains that his photographs are in some way a window into something that goes beyond mere image. His implication, when he said “readings of the surface,” is that the viewer is able to read between the lines, so to speak, and somehow discover something more than just superficial image.
Other later photographers, for their part, reject this idea and adopt the more cynical view that an image is able to display nothing more than that which it precisely shows [see the interview and the quote I pulled from it in my previous post about photographer Pieter Hugo].
Perhaps a middle ground can be found, typified by the classic Diane Arbus quote:
A photograph is a secret about a secret. The more it tells you the less you know.
In other words, there may be more to a photograph than what it shows, but good luck finding out what it is.