“We all perform,” the late Richard Avedon once wrote. “It’s what we do for each other all the time, deliberately or unintentionally. It’s a way of telling about ourselves in the hope of being recognized as what we’d like to be.”
In an introductory essay to his photo collection Portraits, Avedon located this instinct in the family albums of his youth. When Dick was growing up in Manhattan — most people who knew him called him Dick — his family was firmly upper-middle-class and owned a store on Fifth Avenue. But in the aftermath of the Great Depression, they lost the shop. Dick’s father, Jack, went to work as a clothes buyer, sometimes taking on two or three jobs at a time, and the Avedons relocated to a smaller apartment in the Bronx, where Dick slept in the dining alcove.
However, the family photos presented a different sort of life. “When I was a boy, my family took great care with our snapshots,” Avedon wrote in Portraits. “We really planned them. We made compositions. We dressed up. We posed in front of expensive cars, homes that weren’t ours. We borrowed dogs. Almost every family picture taken of us when I was young had a different borrowed dog in it… Looking through our snapshots recently, I found eleven different dogs in one year of our family album. There we were in front of canopies and Packards with borrowed dogs, and always, forever, smiling. All of the photographs in our family album were built on some kind of lie about who we were, and revealed a truth about who we wanted to be.”
That impulse informs much of “Avedon’s America,” a new exhibition opening August 12 at Guild Hall Museum in East Hampton on Long Island. The show offers a career-spanning view of Avedon’s work that delves into the cultural, political, and sociological complexion of the United States in the postwar era, from a 1945 portrait of a young James Baldwin (with whom Avedon co-edited the Magpie, their high school literary journal in the Bronx) to 1960s studies of Jacqueline Kennedy, Bob Dylan, Andy Warhol, and Malcolm X to a 1971 image of a napalm victim in Vietnam. Later works include a 2004 tableau of the U.S Army’s 4th Infantry Division in Fort Hood, Texas, as well as pictures of Jon Stewart, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton taken in the years just before Avedon’s death in 2004.
Avedon’s approach to portraiture changed over the years. Even in his earlier fashion work for Harper’s Bazaar in the 1940s and ’50s, he sought a kind of truth in artifice. One of his favorite subjects back then was Dorothy Virginia Margaret Juba, a model from Queens with a chipped tooth; she had adopted the name “Dovima” after an imaginary friend she’d concocted when she was sick in bed with rheumatic fever as a kid.
As Avedon moved into the 1960s, he trained his eye on the insurgent, countercultural spirit that was taking hold, and his images themselves became more challenging and transgressive: His 1963 portrait of poets and partners Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky depicts the pair nude and embracing; Warhol’s face is cropped out entirely from Avedon’s 1969 portrait, as Warhol raises his shirt to reveal the surgical scars and remnant wounds from his shooting the year prior by Valerie Solanas.
Toward the end of the decade, Avedon began to lean more heavily on the stark white backgrounds and rough-hewn frame edges that would characterize his later work. He was drawn to what he called “the avalanche of age” and captured wrinkles and creases with great clarity. A tonal gray or black background, Avedon said, allowed the artist “the romance of a face coming out of the dark” (a romance turned menacing in his 2001 portrait of Trump, whose head appears to hover in a dimly lit environment). But the white space had the effect of creating an emptiness in the image, stripping it of the symbolism provided by clothes and surroundings, the subject appearing out of context, space, and time. “A white background,” Avedon offered, “permits people to become symbolic of themselves.”
In some ways, the lack of idealism in Avedon’s portraits mirrored the slow erosion of idealism in American life since World War II, as this notion that everyone holds their own truth has now become one that divides us. It’s an idea that Baldwin broached back in 1964 in Nothing Personal, a collaboration with Avedon featuring a handful of Baldwin’s essays amid a selection of Avedon’s portraits. “One discovers the light in darkness, that is what darkness is for; but everything in our lives depends on how we bear the light,” Baldwin wrote. “It is necessary, while in darkness, to know that there is a light somewhere, to know that in oneself, waiting to be found, there is a light. What the light reveals is danger, and what it demands is faith.”