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.

 

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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

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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 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.

Bettina Rheims: Scratch-and-Sniff

Bettina Rheims started taking pictures to impress her father. Believing she was not pretty enough for his standards, she took photographs of beautiful women to get his attention.

“Someone who doesn’t like museums is someone who doesn’t love women”, her connoisseur father Maurice Rheims declared grandly as he caressed the lower back of a Rodin sculpture. Doctrinarian and somewhat overbearing, this short yet handsome figure shared his knowledge and passion with young Bettina for, among many, François BoucherGustave Courbet, and Auguste Rodin; other men’s interpretation of feminine abandon.

Pretty girls behaving badly have a natural appeal, and images of the type of girls mothers warn you about are quite enticing. Naturally, Taschen did a big book on it. They specialise in making books filled with images meant to titillate the simplest common denominator, but can one blame them? It sells like hot croissants. Bettina deserves better.

No man could photograph women with such intimacy. A photographer’s eye is by definition a voyeur, in situations of naked vulnerability it becomes a predator. This adds sexual tension to an image. Not here, Bettina obtains an abandon of her subjects that is the result of her personal savoir faire; a mix of cajoling and directive handling of her voluntary prey. Like a dressing-up game, little girls making-up games, games that become a little naked, a little kinky. The result is a particular form of eroticism of a woman looking at another woman as she gives herself to the camera.

From a different generation, and maybe because it lacks the sexual tension and thus a shared purpose, it is unfair to compare Bettina’s fashion work with Guy Bourdin‘s glorious layers of provocation in full frontal color or Helmut Newton‘s elegant 50 shades of grey. But both were friends and, as the Old Masters of her youth, obvious inspirations.

Her garish, “look at me” images are attractive but somehow something is lacking. They remain in one’s mind as highly staged and richly produced pictures in a magazine. Bettina offers the best of herself in her personal and more introspective work, photographing the slightly off-kilter and interrogating the transient nature of all living things, as in her 1982 Animal series of formal portraits of stuffed animals chosen from Deyrolle‘s taxidermy collection. Or in 1990’s Modern Lovers, with her gender-questioning series shot after the death of her 33-year-old brother. True, these images seem perhaps harsher, less appealing at first, but there is something lasting and powerful that emanates from them: soul.

There is something inherently stifling about growing up in a powerful high society family. Letting others take precedence over you, never complaining and never explaining is drilled into you until it becomes a reflex. Of Bettina’s generation, Nan Goldin successfully based her whole oeuvre on explaining and complaining. Politeness, unobtrusiveness and prudery are not tantamount to great art. Bettina got to break that natural instinct through her work. She has proven that she could make her mark among the brutal world of fashion and advertising. Now, older, and still beautiful, it would be wonderful if she could just do more of what she does best: scrutinising our fragility and yearning.

Bettina’s life story, character and natural empathy are particularly endearing. An example can be found in a double page in the back of the Taschen book, where a facsimile of an early contact sheet of photographs taken for the celebration of the 90th birthday of her grandmother’s Nanny. Albeit not great photography, but simple, caring and revealing of herself and her love for others. That’s the necessary Bettina that I love and admire. As Rosine Crémieux, my very Parisian psychiatrist once said to me: “stop trying to charm me, now, tell me about you”.

Bettina Rheims runs at Maison Européenne de la Photographie, Paris, until March 27th, 2016. All images ©Bettina Rheims

Published in SuperMassiveBlackHole Mag. 03.03.16

 

Guy Bourdin est essentiel

 

Guy Bourdin est à la photographie ce qu’Andy Warhol est à la peinture, un iconoclaste incontournable qui changé notre façon de voir. Bourdin est le produit d’un esprit Français,  éclairé par Laclos, Voltaire, Zola, étudiant le monde et ses acteurs en artisan averti. Son art en est le reflet; juste, fort, certainement pas dupe. Un regard à qui l’on “ne raconte pas d’histoires”. Un regard qui nous séduit en étant plus malin, plus inventif, un peu troublant.

Bourdin est aussi le reflet d’une société en pleine ébullition, en pleine révolution. Les chocs de Sartre, Beauvoir, Genet, Vian, Barbara, Charlie Parker, Chet Baker, les Rolling Stones, la guerre au Vietnam; mais aussi le féminisme, une nouvelle idée de la sexualité, de Mai ’68 à Mary Quant, de Cacharel à Paco Rabanne et Yves Saint Laurent.

Ses images se lisent sur plusieurs plans, ont toujours une histoire dans l’histoire, plusieurs degrés de lecture. Premier degré, agréable, aguicheur, drôle, beau; deuxième degré, un peu douloureux et certainement coquin. Qu’est qu’être coquin? être drôle, spirituel; simplement réaliste, le contraire du romantique. Bourdin n’aime pas édulcorer, il met en lumière, il met en “couleur” le sentiment humain. Il a besoin d’inventer, changer l’idée du chic, en redéfinir les normes.

L’intelligence et l’humour de Duchamp, l’inventivité de Man Ray, le formalisme structurel de Rodchenko, la modernité du Corbusier et les aplats de couleurs de Nicolas de Staël sont plus proches de sa vision. Révolutionner la photographie en introduisant la couleur pure, violente, insolante, fondamentale à la structure et à l’équilibre de l’image.

Le contraire absolu de l’école d’Henri Cartier-Bresson qui nous raconte des histoires simples, lisibles au premier degré, imprimant sur le papier jusqu’aux marges marges noires du négatif pour nous expliquer que “ceci est une photo”. Bourdin casse tout cela et nous dit “ceci est une image faite de lumière et d’aplats de couleur, comprenez ce que vous voudrez”. En faisant cela il transforme à jamais la photographie, lui permettant d’exister non seulement par le fond, mais aussi par la forme, ouvrant ainsi la porte à un produit de l’esprit, à l’Art.

(publié dans le magazine Best, Paris, Juin 2003, à l’occasion de la retrospective Guy Bourdin au Victoria & Albert Museum, Londres)

All images Copyright Guy Bourdin Estate