An Avedon Portrait

October 24, 2002 at 12:00 AM EDT


JEFFREY BROWN: A portrait by Richard Avedon is instantly recognizable. Often the subject is well-known: A celebrity like Marilyn Monroe; a political figure like Henry Kissinger; singer Marian Anderson, from the world of the arts. But even when the man in the photo is an unknown drifter, the Avedon signature is there. Black and white images–no background, no props, just individuals in a void, staring out of the frame. A chance to stare back is offered at New York’s Metropolitan Museum in a major retrospective of 180 portraits.

This turns out to be an homage to a neighborhood son. Avedon grew up just blocks from the museum, and used to roam its halls after school. He first made his name as a fashion photographer, in magazines such as Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. But portraiture is the work he does for himself, and it’s become a key part of what makes the 79-year-old perhaps the world’s most famous photographer. We talked in the museum’s exhibition hall. I asked him what he’s after when he takes a portrait.

RICHARD AVEDON: I’m trying to condense all of my feelings about what it is to be any one of us. It’s not… it’s specific, and at the same time it’s general. I come into this room, and I can’t help but see what I think at the moment about each of you. I could be completely wrong, but the combination of what’s there, no… it’s like fingerprints; no two people are alike. But they all express facets of the same thing.

JEFFREY BROWN: Help me, for our audience, conjure up what it really looks like when you take a portrait of someone. How far away is the subject? Not very far, right?

RICHARD AVEDON: Exactly as far away as I am from you.

JEFFREY BROWN: As you and I are, so we can reach out; we could touch?


JEFFREY BROWN: And you’re using a large camera on a tripod, but you’re not behind it, you’re next to it?

RICHARD AVEDON: Next to it. So when the sitter or the subject is looking into the lens, he’s not looking at me.

JEFFREY BROWN: The sitter is looking into the lens.

RICHARD AVEDON: Yeah, unless he’s looking a little over the horizon, and that’s when he’s looking at me. So I’m able, through conversation… in other words, I could make you laugh right now if I wanted to. I’ve done it, right?


RICHARD AVEDON: Click! In other words, I’m in a very controlling position, and I can bring… and I’ve already… if the camera’s on you, your face is very concentrated. You’re listening. You don’t know what I’m going to say next, and now you’re smiling. All these things are the things I work with.

JEFFREY BROWN: When you’re taking the photographs, do you take many photographs? Are you talking to the person while it’s happening? Is it a kind of confrontation, or is it a conversation?

RICHARD AVEDON: It’s all of those things, every one of them. It’s a subtle, unspoken collaboration between myself and the person who is in front of the camera.

JEFFREY BROWN: For decades, Avedon’s portraits have served as a chronicle of the times. The exhibition playfully features a ’60s era face-off between key figures of the Vietnam War effort, called the Mission Council, and the antiwar activists known as the Chicago Seven. A series of photographs called “The Family” shows the American business and political elite of the 1970s. Some of them– here is a young Donald Rumsfeld– are very much still with us. But Avedon’s prime focus has been on leading cultural figures: Actors Buster Keaton and a playful Charlie Chaplin; writers like Ezra Pound and Truman Capote; composer Igor Stravinsky. Avedon often shows a different side of famous faces, as here, with Groucho Marx. He captured the larger-than- life personality of one of his favorite writers, Isak Dinesan, in a Copenhagen hotel room.

RICHARD AVEDON: The door bell rang, and I looked at the door, and this woman in this uncured black wolf coat said, “I judge people by what they think of King Lear.” I was in my early 20s, and I never spoke again. I just did the picture, and she left.

JEFFREY BROWN: Later, Avedon photographed former President Eisenhower near the end of his life at his retirement home on a golf course.

RICHARD AVEDON: Old retired people would go by in their golf carts and say, “Hi, Ike!” And this ravishing smile would come across his face, and then die. And that’s what I saw– had nothing to do with the public image of him as a smiling President.

JEFFREY BROWN: Avedon would later take a series of portraits of his own father in his last years.

JEFFREY BROWN: You’ve said a number of times, you say, “All photographs are accurate; none of them is the truth.”

RICHARD AVEDON: They’re representations of what’s there. “This jacket is cut this way”; that’s very accurate. This really did happen in front of this camera at this… at a given moment. But it’s no more truth… the given moment is part of what I’m feeling that day, what they’re feeling that day, and what I want to accomplish as an artist.

JEFFREY BROWN: So the old line, “the camera never lies”…

RICHARD AVEDON: Camera lies all the time. It’s all it does is lie, because when you choose this moment instead of this moment, when you… the moment you’ve made a choice, you’re lying about something larger. Lying is an ugly word. I don’t mean lying. But any artist picks and chooses what they want to paint or write about or say. Photographers are the same.

JEFFREY BROWN: Not everyone is always happy with the results. Avedon took this portrait of the renowned literary critic Harold Bloom.

RICHARD AVEDON: And he said, “I hate that picture. It doesn’t look like me.” Well, for a very smart man to think that a picture is supposed to look like him… would you go to Modigliani and say, “I want it to look like me?”

JEFFREY BROWN: But, see, we think of photography differently, don’t we? We take pictures of each other all the time, and we want it… we expect it to look like us.

RICHARD AVEDON: How many pictures have you torn up because you hate them? What ends up in your scrapbook? The pictures where you look like a good guy and a good family man, and the children look adorable– and they’re screaming the next minute. I’ve never seen a family album of screaming people.

JEFFREY BROWN: You do have, though, people say, “I don’t like this; this isn’t me.”

RICHARD AVEDON: Pretty general response.

JEFFREY BROWN: It doesn’t worry you?

RICHARD AVEDON: No. Worry? I mean, it’s a picture, for God’s sake.

JEFFREY BROWN: Avedon’s portraits have been very much part of, even helped define, our age of celebrity. It’s a symbiotic relationship: Avedon, the celebrity photographer; celebrities, eager to be photographed. But Avedon has also looked hard at the decidedly unfamous. In the early ’80s, he traveled through the American West and took pictures of young people, workers, and especially drifters.

RICHARD AVEDON: Do you know Beckett’s play “Waiting for Godot”? It’s about hoboes, about men who are lost out on the road, waiting for something, waiting for some answer. And I found that in drifters… and these people are so raw in their emotions.

JEFFREY BROWN: Avedon took photographs of “Waiting for Godot’s” author, Samuel Beckett, wearing a better cut of suit, but displaying the same craggy face as the western drifters — and this, of actor Bert Lahr, in character from the play, taken in 1956.

JEFFREY BROWN: You wrote in the catalog essay that “Photography is a sad art.” Why?

RICHARD AVEDON: It’s something about a minute later, it’s gone, it’s dead, and the only thing that lives on the wall is the photograph. And do you realize that in this exhibition, almost everyone is dead? They’re all gone, and their work lives, and the photograph lives. They never get old in a photograph. So it’s sad in that way.

JEFFREY BROWN: At the very end of the exhibition is a portrait of Richard Avedon. It’s a triptych of poses. So how does the master portrait- maker come to make a portrait of himself?

RICHARD AVEDON: I see pictures of myself and I always knew that what I was feeling didn’t look like that guy in the pictures. But my face is beginning to look like an Avedon. It look a long while. And I looked in the mirror and I thought, okay, I think I can photograph this face.

JEFFREY BROWN: Avedon is beginning to look like an Avedon?

RICHARD AVEDON: Yeah, finally.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, Richard Avedon, thank you for talking to us.