The Way We Were

Richard Avedon Frames the `60s

If there is a classic Richard Avedon portrait, it's not the one near the end of his latest photo book, The Sixties. The picture wasn't even shot in the '60s but in 1971, when its subject—and the movement—were already past their ironic prime. And it's not in black and white, the usual choice for a photographer whose signature is the stark contrast of people posed against a white backdrop—a setup, Avedon has said, that permits his subjects "to become symbolic of themselves." This time the shooter doesn't determine what the symbol should be, and Avedon's famous passion for control gives way to an almost caressing empathy. Why the anomaly? Maybe it's because of who this person was in life and is in memory.

Abbie Hoffman's fame rested on his personality, and politics was his only product. These intangible achievements are reason enough to consider him the emblem of a decade when style and substance merged, and the naked cry of selfhood was the spark of revolution—or so we thought. Yet Abbie, the anarch of radical hip, was also a man who battled depression and sported many scars from close encounters with the police. (In this culminating photo, his often-broken nose bears the marks of a fresh bandage.) No wonder Avedon decided to frame The Sixties with two images of Abbie, opening with a characteristic pose—his middle finger raised to the world, his forehead blazoned with the word fuck—and closing with a portrait of the revolution artist as a man whose punch-drunk pride prefigures his suicide. "Abbie sets up the issues at the start and answers them at the end," says Doon Arbus, who compiled the text that accompanies these pictures from interviews she conducted at the time. "There's a heightening of passions and beliefs, and then ...it kind of crumbles."

Avedon is loath to discuss the trajectory of such an inconclusive decade. But he knows what matters most about the '60s: "The eternal things were given permission to rise and express themselves through political convictions. There was a license to exhibit, to come forward and use oneself in the theater of protest. But what snuck through were the deeper internal problems of being a person.... When you're thinking the book is its most political, you're hearing a cry against loneliness."

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.

At 76, Avedon himself is in a culminating moment, "struggling with what the last period of my work will be." There are so many possibilities for an artist whose career has shat- tered every boundary a critic could police. It's hard to believe, in this omnimedia era, but the line between fine and commercial art was once so rigid that, when Avedon's work first appeared in major museums, the response was, well, let Hilton Kramer's review of a Whitney retrospective say it: "The ultimate capitulation to celebrity, money, and fashion at the expense of art." Scathing comments were directed at Avedon's way with his subjects—intrusive and cruel, some critics cried— but their real beef was with his success in the slicks. Avedon redefined fashion photography in the postwar era, bringing light and motion to what had been a sepulchral stateliness. What's more, his own image (the dark-haired, darting boy) was so intriguing that Fred Astaire appropriated it in Funny Face. Such a media celebrity was supposed to be seen but not taken seriously.

So there's a certain logic to Avedon's latest book. After all, the '60s were when he burst from beneath the skirts of chic into the arena of art. He became a bad boy simply because his pictures bit the class that fed him, by showing the rich and powerful in states of icy insulation or desuetude. He became a prophet just by documenting the rise of superstars. But it's his portraits of activists, artists, and just plain folks in the grip of bemusement (such as soldiers in Vietnam posing with big-haired, mini-skirted girls) that resonate with the spirit of the '60s. Subjectivity, sensation, a fascination with surface, a blurring of fact and fiction: These are hallmarks of postmodernism, but Avedon was present at the creation. In fact, along with Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, and the Beatles, he was the creation.

Avedon's big idea was to think of a photograph as "an opinion," and portraiture as "performance." His New Journalism of the eye intersected brilliantly with an era of insurrectionary gestures, in which persona was the measure of a person, and the self was no mere construction but something essential that showed on the surface nonetheless. The '60s gaze—intense, libidinous, sincere as only narcissism can be—is at the heart of what makes this book compelling.

Yet, for all their insistence on radical candor, '60s artists understood that representing the real self is a fictive process. So, unlike the documentary photographers who preceded him, Avedon dared to direct his subjects. "It was a collaboration, not a caught moment," he recalls. "I wanted the image to emanate, as if it was always there and I wasn't, but that comes only from being there"—and being in control.

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."

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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