The Way We Were

Richard Avedon Frames the `60s

What made this shift possible was changing equipment. "I'd been using a Rolleiflex, which meant I would look through the camera, hidden by it, and have only an indirect relationship to the person I was photographing. I began to feel that the camera was taking the picture, and all I had to do was move in with that Rolleiflex. It was part of the snapshot aesthetic, and I wanted to slow it down." Using an 8-by-10 view camera forced Avedon and his subjects not to move. "They were stuck to each other," says Arbus. "And this kind of meeting, where the photographer and his subject were really facing each other, naked, so to speak, was a big thing."

Does he find a similar engagement in photography today? "I'm trying to," Avedon replies. But this is not a moment that rewards an attitude of unsparing earnestness, certainly not in commercial photography. Irony is the new sincerity, and that leaves Avedon in a weary state of suspension. "When I've done ironic photography," he says, "I'm a little ashamed of it. I look back on some of those pictures, they're my weakest work." He may have been the fabricator of countless fictions that came to signify reality, but he still believes in the authentic self: "It's all we have."

For an artist who has always located himself in the moment, Avedon seems oddly out of time. He's searching for a new place "where I want to pay attention. At the moment, that's what I'm struggling with, and I don't have any solution."

Abbie Hoffman by Avedon (1971): The wounded, stubborn, soulful face resonates with what the children of the ’60s have become.
photo: © Richard Avedon/the sixties
Abbie Hoffman by Avedon (1971): The wounded, stubborn, soulful face resonates with what the children of the ’60s have become.

He still takes pictures, mostly for The New Yorker, and they still compel the eye. But he's turned his back on his greatest tactical advantage: his love affair with the present. Avedon barely even looks at magazines anymore. "There are millions of magazines," he says ruefully, "millions of photographers."

These days, his prodigious energy is lavished on creating a rolling retrospective of his work, in books like The Sixties. He hopes these pictures will make young people feel as he did when he first read F. Scott Fitzgerald: that sense of being present at a time when the world seemed utterly unmade.

"It's a foreign country, the '60s," Avedon says. He could be talking about himself, just as he was always photographing himself—the artist materializing in his subject, the whole process full of pain, confusion, and struggle, always struggle. "Peace is a very complicated concept," Abbie Hoffman tells Doon Arbus. "When the lion gobbles up the lamb and wipes his lips, then there's peace. Well, I...I ain't for that peace at all."

That picture of Abbie—the one with the wounded, stubborn, soulful face—resonates with what the children of the '60s, including Richard Avedon, have become. As this rememberer of things past says, "It's the madeleine." 

Research assistance: Jason Schwartzberg

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