Mirror, Mirror

Like so many photographers, Avedon has talked about portraiture as self-portraiture. From the choice of subject to the choice of one frame out of many, these pictures mirror their maker: a sophisticated, opinionated man passionately engaged in the cultural, political, and intellectual life of his time. Avedon may not be what Cornell Capa had in mind when he praised the concerned photographer, but his attention to the zeitgeist has never been superficial. If nothing else, "Portraits," shaped and edited with characteristic sensitivity and decisiveness by the Met's Maria Morris Hambourg, should dispel any notion that Avedon is interested only in elegance, sensation, and pop ephemera. What other photographer would have made group shots of the Chicago Seven and the Mission Council in Vietnam, much less blown them up larger than life-size and set them on opposite walls? And made equally probing portraits of Dwight Eisenhower, Groucho Marx, Polly Mellen, William Burroughs, and In Cold Bloodmurderer Dick Hickock?

Taking the performance full-force and head-on: Avedon's Charlene Van Tighem (center, 1983) and Doon Arbus (rear right, 2002) at the Met
photo: Robin Holland
Taking the performance full-force and head-on: Avedon's Charlene Van Tighem (center, 1983) and Doon Arbus (rear right, 2002) at the Met

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Richard Avedon: Portraits
Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Avenue
Through January 5

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Though he rarely uses his pictures to indict his subjects, Avedon puts his enthusiasms on the line and invites us to share them. But he also wants us to make the same sort of human connection he's made—to put aside our blasé detachment and get involved. He ends his essay in the catalog with a letter he wrote to his father. The elder Avedon was hurt when he saw his portrait, and his son explains: "You are angry and hungry and alive. What I value in you is your intensity. I want to make portraits as intense as people. I want your intensity to pass into me, go through the camera and become a recognition to a stranger." Judged by his own tough criterion, Avedon succeeds.

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