“I’ve worked out a series of no’s,” Richard Avedon tells us. “No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no’s force me to the ‘yes.’ I have a white background. I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us.” Printed on the wall in the first gallery of Avedon’s portrait retrospective at the Metropolitan Museum, this text is a neat setup for the work that follows. Its brief litany of denial and affirmation sheds valuable light on the photographer’s process while leaving the exact nature of the portrait session itself—”the thing that happens between us”—in the dark.
Avedon is hardly reluctant to discuss his approach to portraiture. In a disarmingly revealing essay for the book that accompanies this show, he describes his sessions with Francis Bacon, Samuel Beckett, and Jorge Luis Borges in some detail, and scatters enough insights and dicta to inspire a college course: “Portraiture is performance”; “A confrontational, erotic quality . . . should underline all portraiture”; “The surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface.” But what transpires between photographer and subject in that moment when the crucial picture is made remains a mystery. How could it be otherwise? What we see in Avedon’s portraits is the evidence of that exchange—sometimes a spark, sometimes a fire, sometimes an ice storm. In each instance, Avedon clearly hopes to get beyond the surface to what he calls “the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter,” but he never claims to have done so. He can only get as close as he dares or as close as he’s allowed.
The results—180 portraits made as early as 1947 and as recently as last June—are here for us to judge. But by what criteria? Do we expect revelation, intimacy, frisson, or merely spectacle? Entertainment, drama, or the whole truth and nothing but the truth? Avedon’s “series of no’s” seems to have been formulated largely to set his portraiture apart from his fashion work. No matter how rigorous or fraught a portrait session was, its formal austerity and standardized approach must have been a relief from the constant need for fresh, inventive, and graphically dazzling material for the pages of Bazaar and Vogue. So, aside from the artfully staged and larger-than-life tour de force featuring Andy Warhol and key members of his 1969 Factory posse, spectacle is in short supply here. Instead, Avedon captures subtler and more circumscribed performances: Marianne Moore’s pantomime of sensitivity, Oscar Levant’s demented cackle, Isak Dinesen’s bug-eyed glee, Michelangelo Antonioni’s brave grimace (softened considerably by the adoring gaze of his wife).
Avedon has talked about the last photo of his 1957 session with Marilyn Monroe, included here. After several hours of being flirtatiously, professionally “on,” the actress finally sat down in a corner and switched off. Though she was not unaware of being photographed, she allowed Avedon a glimpse of something sad, anxious, and terribly fragile: a star momentarily dimmed. Only a few of Avedon’s subjects have Monroe’s iconic zap, even in repose, but many of them are caught, like her, looking not at the camera but inward. Pinned before that stark white seamless, their self-consciousness hasn’t vanished, but the performance has wound down and they’ve lowered their guard enough to appear wistful or reflective or simply, frankly preoccupied. Avedon obviously waits for these moments and in some cases is rewarded with a fleeting view behind the public face: Truman Capote looks ready to drown in a wave of bitterness and melancholy.
These post-performance photos offer the tantalizing illusion of intimacy—the suggestion that we’re seeing what Monroe or Capote look like when they’re alone with themselves—but their success seems much more dependent on the fame of their subjects than Avedon’s other pictures here. (Muriel Rukeyser is seen in an equally unguarded moment, but who cares?) The most memorable pictures in the show take the performance full-force and head-on, turning people you’ve never heard of before into showstoppers. Avedon is a genius at getting from confrontation to collaboration and back; the emotional give-and-take that animates his best portraits suffuses them with a kind of pent-up energy. He doesn’t need this psychological current to make a visually arresting photo; he could probably do it in his sleep. (He demonstrates that here with 69 portraits of the American power elite, taken for a 1976 issue of Rolling Stone, that forgo emotional connection in favor of uninflected neutrality.) But when a connection is made, the results are riveting.
Take the picture of sculptor June Leaf that looms nine feet high at the end of one gallery. Her prettiness long faded, Leaf wraps her arms awkwardly around her torso and stares into the camera like a sister of Dorothea Lange’s valiant migrant mother. But her gaze is so soulful and loving that glamour is quite beside the point; she has the gravity and presence of a guardian angel. That presence—part bruised, part beatific—resurfaces in the following room with the series of portraits Avedon made in the American West. Though the women here are far more wary of Avedon’s camera, they share Leaf’s warmth and strength; unlike the men chosen to represent this series—nearly all of whom look long past defeat—they’re survivors. I bet these gals would hit it off with Doon Arbus, whose huge portrait in the next and last gallery is the most compelling of Avedon’s 2002 work. Arbus, Diane’s eldest daughter and a frequent collaborator of Avedon’s, is dressed and made up as if for a party, but she’s not happy. Her mouth set, her eyes cold, she’s magnificently malevolent—a fury who makes everyone else in the room look a little pathetic.
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 Blood murderer Dick Hickock?
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.