Richard Avedon: Master Control

“I think all art is about control – the encounter between control and the uncontrollable.”

 From fashion photography, to portraits of a changing world, and up until his death in 2004, Richard Avedon had but one daily obsession: making art. Getting away from the perceived limitations of photography as a “craft”.  Imposing, through determination, rigor, absolute control of intent, and a distinctive sense of self worth, his place in the pantheon of artists. He is the first to ask us to consider photography as a powerful and perceptive expression of art.

“Anything is an art if you do it at the level of an art”.   

Born to a Russian Jewish family in New York in 1923, Richard Avedon was given a Rolleiflex by the time he was ten. After a brief stint at Columbia University, he enlists in the Merchant Marine as a photographer. Discovered by Harper’s Bazaar Artistic Director, Russian émigré Alexei Brodovitch, he joins the staff of the magazine in 1946. Influenced by Martin Munkacsi’s idea of space and action, Avedon breaks the mold of studio stiffness with an influx of movement and vitality.

“There is no truth in photography. There is no one truth about anyone’s person. My portraits are much more about me than they are about the people I photograph”  

Fear, and necessity to manipulate the image we project, are the primary reasons for Avedon’s love of the camera. Everything he could not control as a child, or even as an adult, be it time, desire, self doubt; he could transform and fix with his camera. The camera became his accomplice, his co-conspirator. Master controller, he would use his charm, nervous brutality, and irreverence to seduce his subjects to give-in to his inquisitive eye. “Mirada fuerte”, the strong gaze protruding from Avedon’s dark and destabilizing eyes, were a perfect tool for a determined manipulator. Avedon was tormented throughout his life by the early loss of his beloved younger sister. His first model and early cannon of beauty, he photographed her regularly until, at 18, she started showing signs of mental illness and would withdraw in an asylum until her death at 30.

richard-avedon-samuel-beckett-writer-paris-france-april-13-1979-1993-gelatin-silver-print-485-x-758-inches-udo-and-anette-brandhorst-collection-2014-the-richard-avedon-foundation
Samuel Beckett, writer, Paris, France, April 13, 1979 © The Richard Avedon Foundation.

Manic and obsessive, Richard Avedon’s approach to his subjects was anthropological. He made no distinction between the celebrated and the unknown, his only interest was in what they could convey; what we could learn from the reflection of their fleeting existence and eternal soul. Nearsighted, the use of a plain background, either grey or white, was a brilliant, if not exactly new, subterfuge. It gave his images gravitas and allowed the viewer to concentrate on the subject on the foreground.

Most of his powerful images are subject to a form of domination by Avedon, of surrender by his sitter and awe by the viewer. A few favorites come to mind: the portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor in New York in 1957. Unhappy with their stilted demeanor and the noise their beloved boisterous pugs made, Avedon tells them that, as he was rushing to meet them, his taxi had ran over and, sadly, killed a dog. Click. Or with Marilyn Monroe, who, wearing a glittering sequined dress, played, danced, sang, drank for two hours in front of the camera to no avail. The seduction game stopped, the shoulders dropped, and Avedon captures Marilyn looking lost and fragile, a reflection of her pure beauty and inner turmoil.

Or, as in 1963, when Avedon photographed Rudolph Nureyev the mercurial Tatar, in the nude. Not exactly of a “passive” nature, Nureyev and Avedon play a twisted game with the viewer; concomitantly impinging upon us his distracting  large “talent”, and, with a slightly raised chin and smirk, bestowing upon us look of utter contempt.

 

The Bibliothèque Nationale de France is currently having an exhibition called “Avedon’s France: Old World, New Look”. One meanders from exquisite quality early Harper’s Bazaar contact prints with intricate annotations on the back, to large, effectful images crammed together in unrelated propinquity. Maniacal as Avedon was for impeccable quality printing and framing, I was stunned to see images with creases, others undulating under their mat or, for the very large ones pressed on aluminum, little air bubbles. Conveying overall an impression of haste and amateurism not on par with Richard Avedon’s idea of absolute control on subject, production, presentation and exhibition experience.

 

francis-bacon-artist-paris-april-11-1979
Francis Bacon, artist, Paris, April 11, 1979 © The Richard Avedon Foundation

The Richard Avedon Estate is represented by Pace/MacGill Gallery, New York and  Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco

Bibliothèque Nationale de France “Old World, New Look” until 02/26/17

All Images © The Richard Avedon Foundation, New York

Advertisements

Herb Ritts: Sign ​O’​the Times

Is Herb Ritts to photography what William-Adolphe Bouguereau is to painting? A staged, dated and petit bourgeois idea of titillation? Or is he simply a reflection of a particularly artificial period in our recent history that gave us the “Supermodel”?

A period that revered spotless celebrity idols and fashion icons alike. Fabrications of glamour that were part of a political agenda: a non-threatening representation of stability and satisfaction. A construct of Beauty meant to instill a civilising influence.

“All photographs of the body are potentially political, inasmuch as they are used to sway our opinions or influence our actions. In this regard, and advertising image is as political as the most blatant propaganda. So is the supposedly autonomous art object, in so far as it represents fundamental attitudes and values”. William A. Ewing “The Body” Chronicle Books, 1994

Ronald Reagan and later Bush Père glorified the fifties. Herb, the Brentwood preppy, was clearly inspired by fashion photography giants like George Hoyningen-HueneHorst or John Rawlings. Unlike them, who shot mostly in the studio, he took his subjects outside in the blazing California sun. Thus gracing us with effective images that convey prowess and a glimmer of magic.

But the eighties were not a time we should be sentimental about. Ronald Reagan and his “kitchen cabinet” fostered the mendacity that allows the abject brutality of Donald Trump to exist today.

With nudes, Ritts followed suit. Inspired by California’s supreme sensualist Edward Weston, he also took his beauties outside and mixed them with the “elements”. But, unlike his contemporaries Jock Sturges or Sally Mann, no untoward demonstrations of flesh are to be found. Wrinkles, pouches, objectionable hair, and other imperfections do not disturb us: his beauties are sculptural, chimerical, to be venerated at a distance. “All forms are perfect in the poets mind, but these are not obstructed or compounded from nature, but are from the imagination”. William Blake

“The academic nudes … are lifeless because they no longer embody real human needs and experiences. They are among the hundreds of devalued symbols that encumber the art and architecture of the utilitarian century.” Kenneth Clark “The Nude” Princeton University Press, 1956

But, as beauty is a shield, exalted beauty becomes an armour; Herb Ritts wanted us to be Superheroes. Pain, suffering and death could not touch us. Beyond being a reflection of duplicitous times, Herb Ritts was expressing a sincere, if maladroit, human desire for immortality.

 

Herb Ritts “En pleine lumière” at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris until November 30, 2016

All Images ©Herb Ritts Foundation

​Art Basel 2016: ​Dizzying delights

I was fortunate enough again this year to be one of the many VIP guests, (allegedly more than 10 thousand cards sent) at Art Basel, the ultimate art fair. More than 280 galleries showing everything from classic modern masters and contemporary artists to future art celebs, compete for the attention of pampered art collectors from all over the World.

Walking through the vast treasure filled halls and the gigantic “Art Unlimited” pavilion is a walker’s dream. My iPhone step counter reported 14,627, or 11.62 kilometers in just one day. Proving that art hunting is not only good for the soul but for the heart too!

The New York Times and many other news purveyors report brisk sales. I modestly was privy to a few. Deciding what are the best art works within such a dizzying array of choice can only be the result of chance and subjectivity. Here are some of my favorites:

A must have at $80K, Hiroshi Sugimoto‘s serene and ethereal Five Element Pagodas @ Fraenkel. For the last 36 years, Frish Brandt (the one with the beautiful blue eyes) and Jeffrey Fraenkel have been San Francisco’s taste makers setting quality standards for photography’s modern masters.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 22.55.54
Five Elements, 2011 English Channel, Weston Cliff,1994, 2011 optically clear glass, black and white film, housed in a wooden box , 3 x 6 inches

Quickly sold at $175K a pop, Christian Marclay‘s “Body Mix” series; brilliant, playful and gender fucking early works @ seriously chic powerhouse Paula Cooper. This series generate the same delight as they did when I first saw them in the early ’90’s. Christian Marclay shares the intelligent tongue-in-cheek humor and love for simple craft as his Swiss compatriot elders Fischli and Weiss.

In the $20K range, Peter Hujar‘s haunting “Trucks, night” 1976 @ Thomas Zander. Delighted to see that this seminal 1980’s artist is coming to the fore again.

Screen Shot 2016-06-18 at 23.16.41
Peter Hujar – Trucks Night, 1976 – gelatin silver print on paper

Swiss native Pamela Rosenkranz @ Miguel Abreu. Despite his two-toned South American dictator shoes, Miguel is one of New York’s most successful and young(ish) gallerists representing recently minted stars and up and coming art promises.

African Artists are emerging with great aplomb. I particularly liked the intricate and laborious aluminum wire work of South African Walter Oltmann @ Goodman Gallery from Johannesburg and Cape Town.

Truly sublime @ Art Unlimited: Julie Meheretu‘s immense poetic “Eye of Ra” ink painting – Wolfgang Tillmans “New York Installation PCR, 525, 2015” – the soothing light magic of James Turrelland many more too famous to mention 

In its forty seventh edition, what keeps making Art Basel the best fair ? Why are they always on target? What are their tricks? What do they do that we should learn from? Perhaps it is because of the city in which it was founded and whose name it carries. A small city known for its collectors, Basel has a tradition of quality powered by money, an impeccable Swiss sense of logistics mixed with a passion for art; and the knowledge that today’s avant-garde artists are tomorrow’s classics.

Art Rant: Photo London

(Art Rant: because sometimes you just gotta vent!)

Photo London – Key operative word: customer experience – Evaluation: bad – Somerset House as an art venue, why? A strange and confusing labyrinth of small and mostly badly lit rooms taking photography fairs back to their inception; old men in over used tweed jackets and dirty nails sifting through boxes looking for “cartes postales coquines”. Exaggerated? Of course, but Art Fair customer experience (saturated by choice) should not be restricted by the architectural limitations of the venues they are held in. The city ensconcing the most Billionaires in the world needs to do better than that.

@Anthony Hernandez
Anthony Hernandez Rome #16, 1999 ©Anthony Hernandez, courtesy Gallery Thomas Zander

Best in show: Thomas Zander represents all that is good in photography today. More than anyone he knows how to present “classic” photography with a well-defined contemporary feel. There is no go or bad media; there are good or bad artists, and, good or better works by these artists. The display in his large rectangular space, one of the few good spaces at Somerset house, is a perfect example of his mindset. Across the entrance, above the fireplace, we are pulled in by an intense blue Anthony Hernandez piece, facing it on the other side of the room is a large Mitch Epstein in rich greys. To the left and right of them, two very different artists erupt in conversation. Ensconced by a selection of Larry Clark’s Tulsa series and a Bernd and Hilla Becher vintage grid, a large Candida Höfer in cold and bright acid colours (a 2003 image of a Museum shop bookcase) faces a joyous, brilliantly hung grid of black and white Studio 54 images by Tod Papageorge. Candida Höfer, at 71 is no spring chicken, yet how is it that her picture feels so pertinent and contemporary? It is the result of concept and intent of Thomas’ distinct eye for quality and very astute sense of space.

@Evelyn Hofer
Evelyn Hofer Phoenix Park on a Sunday, Dublin 1966 @Evelyn Hofer, courtesy RoseGallery

West coast flower power: Rose Shoshana; The Mother of photography dealers, always enthusiastic and generous with her time was stuck in a badly lit overly warm corner. Her booth shows magnificent and rare Evelyn Hofer and William Eggleston dye transfer prints going for approximately the same price ($40k or less) as the uninventive pretentious void of a Jean-Baptiste Huynh print. Hello! Dye transfer prints are pure magic! This rare and complicated technique is the most vibrant expression at the heart of the historical renaissance of American color photography. Why have they not sold out?

Bright youngish thing: The poetic and humorous charm of Alec Soth at Weinstein Gallery

©Alec Soth
Alec Soth, ©Alec Soth courtesy Weinstein Gallery

Rant: At Somerset House, some spaces are better than others, one feels for the “emerging” dealers stuck in the bowels of the building surely attracted by the lure of London’s Millionaires. But did they dare go into the cave? Had they any chance of actually seeing anything in this cluttered, unattractive and sad looking space?

The “basic instinct” heterosexual club: Hamiltons Gallery, where you will see more of Peter Beard’s trite ejaculations, some sexy chick pics (in poses they will regret some day) and an uninteresting image by Robert Mapplethorpe. This déja-vu selection is saved by the magical purity of Irving Penn’s flower pictures. Thankfully, for us and the Irving Penn estate, (reminder: one of the most talented, innovative, fundamental and pivotal pillars of 20th century photography/art), his prime dealer is Peter MacGill, whose sense of quality, knowledge and taste should be the golden standard. The difference between Hamiltons Gallery and YellowKorner shops? Price point. Oh and Hamiltons doesn’t sell pictures of cars, or do they?

© Irving Penn Foundation.jpg
Irving Penn ©Irving Penn Foundation courtesy Hamiltons Gallery

Camera Work Berlin; yet again the Worlds number one purveyor of decorative emptiness, is doing very well, thank you. Think of the (already mentioned) vapid, faux-chic works by Jean Baptiste Huynh or the seductive crowd-pleasing images by fashion photographers. Blown up, bad quality prints of Vogue shoots. (Helmut Newton’s estate and Paolo Roversi deserve better company)

Photography, as any art media should rock our world, move us, taunt us, and ravish us. Or, just appease and certainly elevate and educate us. Admittedly, reacting to something, as I am doing now, is already the recognition of its existence. But come on, Art Dealers and Art Fair organisers, always take the discourse to a higher level, don’t take your clients, on whose patronage you depend, for fools. Show quality in surroundings that honour their creator’s intentions.

“You don’t take a photograph, you make it.”

With this quotation by Ansel Adams, I want to propose a little historic perspective and some contextualisation. Quoting extensively from Art Historians and photographers, I would like to take the opportunity to share my admiration and love for them.

“The invention of photography provided a radical new picture making process – a process based not on synthesis but on selection … But he (the photographer) learned also that the factuality of his pictures no matter how convincing and unarguable, was a different thing than the reality itself. Much of the reality was filtered out in the static little black-and-white image and some of it was exhibited with an unknown natural clarity and exaggerated importance. The subject and the picture were not the same thing, although they would afterwards seem so. This was an artistic problem not a scientific one…”

John Szarkowski The Photographer’s Eye The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1966

“Embracing the vernacular as a model, Walker Evans dispensed with the sophisticated markers of craft that distinguished the artistic photograph from all others and swept away the barrier that had encircled modernist photography’s privileged subjects. For the first time, the photograph as-a-work-of-art could look exactly like any other photograph – and it could show us anything, from a torn movie poster to a graveyard overlooking a steel mill. The photograph’s claim of artistic distinction relied solely upon the clarity, intelligence, and originality of the photographer’s perception.

This profoundly radical idea more than the example of Evans’s work itself is the wellspring from which later flowed the very different work of Robert Frank, Garry Winogrand, Diane Arbus and Lee Friedlander. For them, neither the choice of what to look at, nor the way in which to look at it, nor the sense of what it might mean to look at such a thing in such a way was dictated by a pre-ordained rule.”

Peter Galassi American Photography 1890–1965. The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 1995

“… Szarkowski called them “documentary photographers” and believed them motivated by “more personal ends” than those of the preceding generation, sharing “the belief that the world is worth looking at, and the courage to look at it without theorising” (qualities that also suggest William Eggleston, Joel Meyerowitz, and Nicholas Nixon, among others)

At the time when the practice and history of photography were making their way into academia, Szarkowski stubbornly defended an anti theoretical and non academic approach, which he described – betraying a taste for provocation – as “the easiest of the arts”: “Putting aside for today the not very mysterious mysteries of the craft, a photographer finally does nothing but stand in the right place, at the right time, and decide what should fall within and what is outside the rectangle of the frame. That is what it comes down to.”

Quentin Bajac. In Photography at MoMA: 1960–Now. The Museum of Modern Art, 2015

And, if I may add my own “pinch of salt”as the French would say, I will venture that the reason why these choices made by photographers (moment, light, framing), are interesting for us to discover and admire, is that they are guided not only by their brain, but by their soul. And some people have been graced with the talent to let the direct link to their soul express itself by producing, what we commonly call, Art.

 

In Praise of: Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973

Trail’s End Restaurant, Kanab, Utah, August 10, 1973“Transcendent documents” is how Walker Evans explains the way a photograph can simultaneously describe the place (what we see) and the nature of the people that live in it (who we are)

In 1972, native New Yorker Stephen Shore, a young and successful photographer, starts a series of road trips across America inspired by Walker Evans and Robert Frank’s earlier work.

Color Photography was mainly used in fashion or advertising, and, for the burgeoning group of scholars and aficionados of photography as fine art, the use of color was akin to sacrilege. How garish and “untruthful”,  emotion could only be achieved with black and white.

In reference to the transient aspect of his encounters, the project  was named”American Surfaces”. Keep in mind that a photograph had to have a meaning, a purpose, a story to illustrate. Photographing the daily banalities surrounding one’s seemly aimless voyage was quite new. Still, with the brilliant work of  Stephen’s contemporaries, William Eggleston, William Christenberry, or Joel Meyerowitz, vernacular color photography was taking ground.

Saddled with Watergate and the never ending Vietnam war, conveying a sense of identity was not expected of an artist, nonetheless these pioneers of color were expressing, in their own quiet way, their love for the simple and perfectible things that constitute America.

“To see something spectacular and recognise it as a photographic possibility is not making a very big leap,” Stephen Shore once said. “But to see something ordinary, something you’d see every day, and recognise it as a photographic possibility – that’s what I’m interested in.”

And with that in mind, we have Stephen to thank for our own, everyday, teetering attempts on Instagram : )

 

A Stephen Shore retrospective is currently exhibited @ C/O Berlin 

Robert Mapplethorpe: Ad Maiorem Corii Gloria

In 1983, I was working as a trainee at Christie’s in New York in the Modern Paintings department. One of my duties was to be on the exhibition floor making sure clients inquiries would be attended.

One particular winter morning I see, from behind, standing intently in front of a Magritte, a perfectly coiffed blue rinse bouffant. As I approach to offer my help, I notice a frail heavily bejeweled hand clasping a small alligator bag against a fluffy white Lynx coat.

” May I help you, Madam?”

“Madam?! “ Alexander Iolas screeches, “Oh not Madam yet Darling!”

Alexander Iolas was a Greek art dealer who had made a very good life for himself selling, among many other classics, late Picasso’s to Greek shipping tycoons with Swiss residencies.

Albeit our awkward beginnings, I spent a lot of time with this ageing “Grande Dame” of art dealing prone to peremptory sayings:  “A Great work of Art is Always equally very simple and very sophisticated, mon Chéri !” 

The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was at Le Palace in Paris in the winter of 1980. A very grand and very chic party was held in the “it” place of the day. Do remember that the idea of a “Gay only” disco was just not in style yet…

A slide show of the X Portfolio was projected on the immense screen above the stage. Golden showers, fist fucking and many other intricate delicacies were glanced sideways by smoking luminaries, granting a Gallic shrug at what was to become a seminal work of contemporary photography.

Andy Warhol had introduced me to Robert at a “kids” lunch at the Factory in early 1979.  I, blond Park Avenue cutie part of Andy’s “chickens” was simply of no interest to this sexy, energetic, intense looking, leather clad, ambitious waif from Long Island.

But, as chickens tend to follow roosters, we arranged to meet Robert for a late dinner followed by a visit to one of his favorite places TheAnvil.  Andy left early, others, bewitched, bothered or bewildered, did not.

The essential image: “Man in Polyester suit”, just imagine the sheer terror or delight this image conveys! The manifest crass cliché it implies: primal and poor black men in polyester suits will rape our wives and molest our boys with their huge cocks!

The Political implications of the image in Ronald Reagan’s America as in Barack Obama’s are manifold. In simply taking a photograph of what Robert loved and knew intimately (Milton Moore, one of his trysts), he threw a spongy bomb in the face of all the prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and fear mongering prophets.

Ultimately, Robert created an image that fits the standards of a great work of Art; simple in its “raison d’être” and concept, formidably sophisticated in the interpretations and ripple effects they cause.

Also, time has proved, it had staying power, historically and economically. Did Robert know he was making great art? He certainly always intended to.

Robert used all that New York can give with gluttony. Re-invention; by meeting all the right people, loosing those along the way that are no longer profitable, and quickly becoming the “Enfant Chéri” of the Uptown swells, photographing pretty flowers and making portraits of their children.

He reminded me of Lou Reed’s brilliant evocation of an earlier down town:

“Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”

In 1987, I went to one of his last shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. An emaciated, leather clad old man, looking at me through eyes clouded by malady, flashed his carnivorous smile at me, his slow burning and wiry intensity still glowing softly.

Robert’s generation, such as Peter Hujar or Lynn Davis, with the help of their dealers, were pivotal in the transformation of the Photography market, from an infinitely reproductive process into the controlled and limited edition Fine Art we know today.

His images can be interpreted as staged, cold, manipulative, pornographic, violent, too classic, scary, and gross or boring, but they are crucial. For Photography, for LGBT studies and for a global understanding of the mortiferous mendacity of the eighties, Robert is an undisputable and unavoidable icon.

XYZ, the current show at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris is an absolute must see!    (Three Portfolios were made, X for SM sex, Y for floral still life and Z for African-American male nudes)

A masterful selection of the portfolios, show beautifully printed images that are powerful, raw and disturbing.  Exactly how Robert should be remembered.

Oh, and last but not least, the Ropac exhibition is curated by Peter Marino, über Architect of the grandest fashion names and 21st century’s living representation of the glorification of leather!

 

Written for and published on UK’s most read Photography Blog SMBHMag            (warning: seriously “Not Suited for the Meek” images on there)

All images ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION