Richard Avedon at SFMOMA: A Powerful Retrospective of the Legendary Photographer through November 29, 2009. SFMOMA is the show’s only U.S. venue
Throughout his celebrated six-decade career, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) has always drawn huge crowds. His fashion photography, portraiture and reportage, an innovative juggling of commercial and fine art photograph, have seared themselves into our memory. His current show at SFMOMA, “Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004” July 11 through November 29, 2009, is the first comprehensive retrospective his work since his death in 2004 and delivers over 200 of his signature photographs along with some surprises—lesser known photographs that are remarkable. SFMOMA is the only US venue this show. The exhibition was organized by Helle Crenzien in 2007 for The Louisiana Museum of Modern Art Denmark in cooperation with the Richard Avedon Foundation and it has traveled to Italy, France, Germany, and the Netherlands. It is installed here by Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography, with support from SFMOMA curator Corey Keller, Norma Stevens and James Martin from the Richard Avedon Foundation and the Jeffrey Frankel Gallery.
Aside from the famous models (Dovima, Suzy Parker, Veruschka, Twiggy), there are movie stars (Marilyn Monroe, Katherine Hepburn), rock stars (the Beatles, Janis Joplin, Bob Dylan, Björk), world leaders (Eisenhower, Kissinger, Ted Kennedy), writers and poets (Ezra Pound, Renata Adler), artists (Willem de Kooning, Francis Bacon, Andy Warhol) and non-famous people. It all adds up to a show that equals the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s 2002 blockbuster show “Richard Avedon: Portraits.” Now that Avedon is dead, what kind of artist we judge him to be is ultimately based on the work we see and its presentation, which makes posthumous retrospectives vitally important.
This exhibition is organized chronologically, highlighting the major themes and benchmark moments in Avedon’s prolific career—his early post WWII street scenes; his breakthrough into fashion work in the 1950’s; his expansive reportage of American counterculture in the 1960’s and 1970’s; his Reagan-era series of portraits of non-famous people—cowboys, drifters—on the fringe and his iconic portraits of the influential and famous. The galleries are filed with unforgettable gorgeously printed pictures–medium-sized, large, larger and really really large, like the 31 foot long 1969 mural of Andy Warhol and several of his Factory gang, buck-naked.
With Avedon, it’s all about people—capturing them at that perfect moment in time when you sense you can read them— against a backdrop that is either a highly-stylized fashion environment infused with energy and movement or, for the portraits, a stark sheet. Either way, Avedon was in full control of everything down to the finest detail.
Of his early fashion photography, certainly the most famous images are those of his beloved models– “Dovima with Elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955” and “Homage to Munkacsi, Carmin, Coat by Cardin, Place Franḉois-Premier, Paris, August 1957” which captures Carmen gliding effortlessly in mid air as she steps off a curb into a Paris street. Avedon was inspired by the Hungarian-born Martin Munkacsi, whose work he had come across in Harper’s Bazar and Vogue. Munkacsi was a former sports photographer who revolutionized the static world of fashion photography by injecting it with movement. Avedon added to Munkacsi’s pioneering work by infusing the movement with soul and emotion.
As Avedon quickly found his expressive groove in the fashion work, his career took off and he successfully and seriously embraced portraiture. His stark portraits have been described as unforgettable, as being unusually good at capturing character. The truth is that we read into these whatever we want to see. We all have an internal filter–whatever we think we may know about that person, we project onto their image. Critic Michael Kimmelman writes “The tradeoff with Mr. Avedon is between style and substance. It’s the tension he has made into his art.” (Art Review, New York Times, September 27, 2002.) Avedon’s 1957 portrait of Marilyn Monroe captures a weary starlet who seems smaller than life, whereas his 1963 portrait of a young Bob Dylan seems “charged with future” (Gabriel Celaya).
Avedon is one of the very few artists who started in a so-called non-serious branch of photography and transitioned into serious branch and was able stay there, not only as a fully accepted but also as a highly esteemed practitioner of photography as an art. (Helle Crenzien essay p 22 in Richard Avedon Photographs 1946-2004, Louisiana Museum of Modern Art, 2007) His first major retrospective was in 1962 at the Smithsonian (he was 39), just as photography itself was being recognized by arts institutions. His fashion work drew the crowds, who also reacted enthusiastically to his vital portraits. The situation now is radically different—today, it is generally accepted that a commercial photographer can be an artist.
Walking through the exhibition, I had a talk with Sandra Phillips, SFMOMA Senior Photography Curator, and with Norma Stevens, Avedon’s long-term “person” (friend, colleague, and Founding Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation in New York) and with James Martin, Managing Director, The Richard Avedon Foundation, who worked closely with Avedon as a technician up until Avedon’s death in 2004.
Geneva Anderson: As Avedon became more and more famous over the years, did his work process change? Did he become more and more picky about who he worked with, selecting subjects himself, or did he work on commission?
SANDRA PHILLIPS: He worked pretty much only through commissions. He had a very strange egalitarianism mixed with celebrity. I think what he tried to do was to show that people were remarkable and that famous people were as remarkable as people who are remarkable in different ways.
His work did change over time. It changed, I think, because the market place evolved. Harper’s became a less interesting magazine. It is significant that his last position was at The New Yorker which was kind of like Harper’s Bazar had been and he was very interested in making that a vital magazine. He also did these commissions In the American West—these people who are not celebrities, they are unknown and that was an interesting challenge for him. They are not humanitarian pictures; they are very serious pictures though that show the dignity that people have acquired through living as they have and where they have.
I believed the 1960’s shaped him profoundly in the way it shaped us–a period of tremendous upheaval whose resonance we still experience. He photographed all the players, the heroes and villains, from Janis Joplin, to the Beatles, to Warhol, to the
Vietnam Generals, to George Wallace. And his pictures of art aristocrat’s Robert Frank, Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns come from the same special family as those more broadly known. Avedon saw them all as an individuals and all as models.
NORMA STEVENS: He worked both ways. He worked for Harpers, Vogue, The New Yorker, so if he wanted a photograph someone, like say Ezra Pound, that request came from him through the magazine. If the magazine brought him someone, he would do that too. It happened all along the way and I am talking about the portraits–they were something that were of enormous interest to him. He had fascination with the arts—artists like Jasper Johns, Willem de Kooning and writers like Tennessee Williams, Dorothy Parker. By the time he got to The New Yorker, it was wonderful because they were interested and would bring him people that he might not have even known about and it was a wonderful collaboration.
Geneva Anderson: Did he ever refuse to photograph anyone?
NORMA STEVENS: Well, Madonna. When a celebrity comes, they have their idea of how they want to look and you can go along with it but Dick would always want to add his creative mark, how he saw what they wanted to portray. There might be a little struggle but, with her, she was not interested in working with him and he was definitely not interested in working with her.
Geneva Anderson: Did she approach him?
NORMA STEVENS: With celebrities, it’s usually mediated. She sent her people to our people (and that was me). She has people she loves working with like Steven Meisel. Dick was not her time of day. It would have been interesting though–don’t you think?– to see what would have come out of that?
Geneva Anderson: Did he strictly adhere to no cropping?
NORMA STEVENS: He rarely cropped. The prints you see here with all the black edge—that’s the entire photo. He did it in the camera and that was it. He used a big 8×10. The printers would go all through the night and prepare images for him to review in the morning and he would make comments like “it needs a little more drama.” And they had to interpret that.
Geneva Anderson: How did the advent of digital photography impact him?
SANDRA PHILLIPS: I am inclined to say it didn’t.
NORMA STEVENS: He tried it and it didn’t really impress him. He might have gone around and said no further prints can be made. He was very strict about that.
Geneva Anderson: What was it like over the years? How did you make it?
NORMA STEVENS: I am still here. It wasn’t always fun. It was an awful lot of work. Look at the energy in those portraits around us…he was just like that…he was so full of energy. We had an understanding. I am taller than I look.
James Martin, Executive Director of the Richard Avedon Foundation worked as a dark room technician for Richard Avedon during his final years.
Geneva Anderson: Take me through a typical printing experience with Avedon.
JAMES MARTIN: I did a lot of his printing. If you look at the way he has printed, it hasn’t changed that much. Earl Steinbicker, who worked with him from the 1950’s onward, is writing a book about the experience and his blog describers the printing technique. The process for a single print involves making ten different prints with slightly different contrast ratios—darker or lighter and picking the four that they—the team–think Dick would want. Those were printed 16 x 20 and put on his kitchen table in morning and, of course, they would all be wrong. He would say things like “the ear is perfect–you should focus on the ear.” And so you would go back down to the dark room and spend 4 or 5 hours and make another range of say 6 images based on his comment. You would bring these up to him and you would get closer but he would say these are garbage. And so it went.
Geneva Anderson: He had the capacity to use very technical terms to describe precisely what he wanted but it sounded like he chose to communicate in a non-technical way.
JAMES MARTIN: Yes. He would communicate with us using phrases like “this “needs to have more passion” which, in a sense, is not technical but you know exactly what you need to do as a darkroom technician. “More passion” is a nuanced way to work with the printing process. Everything was done downstairs in the basement and you would work all day long on a single print, sometimes at 3 in the morning and he would talk in a very non-technical way–“More drama here, less drama there.” It was a very intuitive way of going about it—it’s also talking with the other technicians you are working with and trying to determine what that means, what does that translate to. It was a lot of teamwork and a lot of team building.
Geneva Anderson: Is there a photograph here that you were responsible for printing?
JAMES MARTIN: There is only one in this show—the portrait of the singer Lorraine Hunt Leiberman. It’s really fairly close towards the end of his life. He was 82 when he did this project and was aware that it was his last major effort and he knows it and he knows he needs to come up a last important series of photographs. And this was for The New Yorker but it was also for himself. He working on this book Woman in the Mirror , photographs of hope, woman that bring that sense of coda to his story, to the work of Avedon.
These are different portraits. This is a very tender tender image. You do not see that forgiving quality in his earlier work. That meant lowering the contrast in her face with one filter, yet pumping the contrast up in the hair. But once you did that, you ran into the problem of what does that hair convey? She had red hair and as I took the photo back to him, he would say that it doesn’t look like a photograph of a redhead. I had to translate that into technical printing—how do you make that hair look red and preserve the contrast with the softness in the face? It was certainly a challenge and you make choice and it probably took me 20 hours just working on the contrast ratios in the hair alone to really pull it up. Now that I am looking at it here, I am seeing that in certain light, it looks a little more brown than red. It’s very hard to look at this without seeing the other photos, the history.
Contrast that with the 1955 portrait of Marian Anderson the contralto singer who is captured in a moment of intense inner concentration on song. By waiting for the moment when her eyes were closed, all the attention is drawn to her mouth, to her total embodiment of voice. There is strength in this portrait rather than the tenderness and vulnerability in his last portraits of women.
When Avedon died unexpectedly in San Antonio, Texas, in October 2004 on assignment for The New Yorker magazine, he left iron-clad instructions about how his $60 million fortune was to be used and how his artistic legacy should be preserved.
Geneva Anderson: Norma, you have worked for the past five years to establish and make The Richard Avedon Foundation financially secure. We are living in very tumultuous times–how secure are you?
NORMA STEVENS: “We are financially secure for the foreseeable future, at least the next five years. Dick knew what he wanted done to protect his legacy. The copyrights of his work alone, which he bequeathed to the Avedon Foundation totaled nearly $300,000. The estate’s biggest asset is his printed pictures. His biggest worry was what would happen to the prints after his death and he left directives indicating that no prints or reproductions were to be made posthumously, except for contact sheets, which could be used for educational purposes.