The Avedon Look
How the grand old master of portraiture made his name.
F. Scott Fitzgerald's remark that "there are no second acts in American lives" ranks high on the list of epigrams both famous and false, and no one disproved it more effectively than the photographer Richard Avedon, who died last Friday at the age of 81, midway through Act Umpteen of an unusually rich and accomplished life. Avedon's stage was strictly circumscribed: So far as I know, he never took a picture that didn't have a person in it, and he never took a picture of a subject who didn't know that he was taking their picture. But he was a master who remade himself regularly, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse, and always to the benefit of his fame and standing.
Avedon began in fashion photography in the early '50s, and within a few years he dominated the genre. Before he came along, the photos in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue were mostly about clothes; he made them mostly about women, bringing his models out of the studios and sending them into the streets, where they were given stories of a sort, or at least a world to react to. Avedon's pictures were nimble and charming; what's more, he had an astounding aptness for capturing curved lines: the swirling hem of a dress, the clean semicircle of a hat brim, the elegant declivity of a bare shoulder. The pictures were at once spontaneous and formally exact, and even today, when the models are forgotten and the clothes are decades out of fashion, they are perfect talismans of elegance.
Had Avedon done nothing else, he would have been one of the great figures in 20th-century American culture: The 1957 movie Funny Face, in which Fred Astaire plays Avedon (the character's barely disguised name is Dick Avery), Audrey Hepburn plays his inamorata, Givenchy designs the clothes, the Gershwins provide the songs, and Paris serves as the backdrop, may be the most glamorous movie ever made. Avedon was 33 when it was released; most photographers, overwhelmed by the chic of it all, would have coasted for the rest of their lives.
Instead, Avedon moved on. He began to focus more on portraiture and then, as the '60s began, on documentary work, shooting civil rights workers and hospital inmates, the Chicago Seven and Vietnamese civilians injured in the war. A lot of people took this work seriously, in part because it resounded with the Strange Days atmosphere of the time, and in part because it fit so neatly into the kind of aesthetic that generally appeals to educated people with no particular feel for photography: It's stark, it's good for you, it's jolie-laide, and it's easy to read.
Avedon's documentary pictures always struck me as misconceived, and the quickest way to explain why is to look at a double-page spread from his Autobiography, which juxtaposes a glorious picture of the model Jean Shrimpton with a close-up portrait of a Vietnamese woman whose face has been disfigured by napalm. Aside from the simpleminded ironies of such a layout, there is this telling problem: Avedon doesn't provide the Vietnamese woman's name, and I doubt that he ever bothered to ask for it. He wouldn't have, because it doesn't matter to the picture: After all, she's not meant to be a specific Vietnamese woman, with a specific history and a specific fate; she's meant to be a Symbol of Something—the ravages of American imperialism, or our shared guilt, or the obscenity of modern warfare, or something like that. But as soon as she stops being real and becomes a symbol, she stops being herself, she stops being human—which is quite literally to add insult to injury. Almost all photography is predatory: Exploitation is the medium's true métier; I take that for granted and rarely find it severe enough to be objectionable. But Avedon's documentary work is more exploitive than most, and it doesn't hold up well.
The celebrity portraits are better. Shot from up close and set against a context-erasing white background, his sitters have massive foreshortened sculptural heads, from which their bodies seem to fall away awkwardly. He was particularly good at conveying the age of old people—all those wrinkled faces, dumpy bodies, ill-fitting clothes. Small wonder that his subjects, from Truman Capote to Gerald Ford, don't smile: They're sitting for portraits of pure dourness. In the end the pictures are flattering, anyway, since they portray a power beyond mere beauty or amusement; and like everything Avedon did, they ended up being emblems of stylishness. Modern America has a way with that sort of paradox: We turn our curses into blessings. Avedon suffered from that process as much as anyone and ended up profiting from it more than most.
Thereafter came museum shows (he was one of the first fashion photographers taken seriously enough to be offered one) and the occasional deluxe volume; and when Tina Brown hired him to be The New Yorker's first staff photographer ever, in 1992, it seemed like a safe, blue-chip decision. In fact, for the first few years Avedon, or his editors, seemed to falter, especially with a strenuously detrop fashion spread involving models and a skeleton, which the magazine published in 1995. Then there was some kind of loosening; Avedon went back to portraits, but they were as sure-footed as his earliest commercial work. It was a second wind; all pretense and anxiety gone, his natural jaunty elegance back in place. His picture of Chan Marshall (aka Cat Power) last year (she's holding a cigarette, grinning, and her jeans are halfway unzipped) is one of the most delightful portraits I've ever seen—sexy, funny, playful, and sweet, and with none of the goatishness you might expect from a man in his 80s. "I'm back," the photo seemed to say, and I liked it so much I tore it out of the magazine and tacked it up on the corkboard above my desk. With all the pictures that pass before our eyes each day, it takes a photographer of genius to take one that lasts, that bears looking at day after day. A year later, Avedon's portrait of Marshall is still on my bulletin board. I expect it will stay there for some time to come.
Jim Lewis is the author of three novels, most recently, The King Is Dead.
Photographs of: Richard Avedon, standing in front of his self-portraits, by Kathy Willens/AP Photo; Tina Turner by Richard Avedon/AFP/Getty Images.