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 distractingly  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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In Praise of: Wolfgang Tillmans

“Photography always lies about what’s in front of the camera, but it never lies about what is behind, it always clearly reveals the intentions that are behind… Allowing and being as prepared as possible for what might happen, while staying open for what chance may come into play, is my way of working.”

As beautifully said by Wolfgang in a Lecture at Royal Academy of Arts in London on February 22, 2011. The viewer always gets to glimpse at the soul of the artist: the freer and more sensitive the soul, the better his gift to us.

Using the medium of photography in all its forms, hyper sensitive, refined and inquisitive, Wolfgang Tillmans is one of his generation’s most prominent and pertinent artists. He challenges the presumptions of contemporary life, the subterfuge of expected transparency. Like his admired fellow-countryman, Gerhard Richter, well known for his multiple forms of painterly expression, Wolfgang enjoys experimenting with a palette of techniques and variety of subjects. His approach to photography, oscillating between the random and the specific, is sensuous and sensorial. His subjects vary from portraits, still lives and architecture, or  can be abstract, such as  Freischwimmer and Blushes or the earlier Silver series. Painterly images made purely from reactions of light or dirt and agile manipulation of photographic printing paper.

In many ways, he is the natural heir of Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg. Like them, he  develops series, has a love for texture and serendipitous flubs. These imperfections add a touch of humanity, a touch of the relatable. Wolfgang engages us in the pleasure he gets from the chance effects on his first “Photocopy” series, or, in “Arcadia”, the texture of the sweat on nape of the necks of nightclub revellers, to the exuberant explosion of high definition color in his recent still lives.

As Warhol and Rauschenberg before him, he uses photography as a base for his art, but is not limited by it. Much like his forefathers, Wolfgang is man of his times and is aware of the Political power his work can convey. His seemingly ordinary images of modern life always carry an undercurrent message. Freedom to live and love is never a given, it always involves vigilance and work.

“This photograph (The Cock (Kiss), 2002) of two guys kissing got slashed by a visitor at the Hirshhorn Museum, in Washington. I’m always aware that one should never take liberties for granted. For hundreds and hundreds of years this was not normal, not acceptable, and this term of acceptable is really what I connect beauty to … beauty is of course always political, as it describes what is acceptable or desirable in society. That is never fixed, and always needs reaffirming and defending.”

With homes and studios in Berlin and London for the last twenty years, Wolfgang is well aware of the magnificent luck we Europeans have in living in the most progressive and inclusive place on earth. The blatant electoral ambitions of Britain’s Prime Minister and the bleached blond Iago, his brutal and egocentric wannabe successor, remind us of Alphonse de Lamartine’s words: “Charmer, s’égarer et mourir” (to charm, to stray and to die). Enticing youth to enlist and participate in their future, Wolfgang, staunchly anti Brexit, launched a powerful open source campaign denouncing the dangerous and self serving game played by manipulative politicians.

Curious of the alchemy of the world and its vulnerability, Wolfgang transforms his extraordinary sensitivity and intuition into tangible objects for us to admire. Open hearted but attentive, he is unburdened by the corrosive breath of melancholy and studies the world without judgment. A beautiful mirror of our need to love, our battles, our gains and our frailty.

All images ©Wolfgang Tillmans

Published in SuperMassiveBlackHole Mag. 20.05.16