Never has the expression “A picture is worth a thousand words” rung more true than in the instance of photographer Richard Avedon.
Currently displayed at the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth is very fortunate to only be the second city in the country to host Avedon’s exhibition. It’s the closest most of us will ever get to the famous faces peering out of their frames; especially since many of them are no longer with us. Framed specifically for this exhibition, the black and white portraits on silver gelatin are breath-taking. To stand in front of Marilyn Monroe in an unguarded moment is a thing of exquisite beauty, and demonstrates how Avedon clearly installed a sense of ease in his subjects. Certainly a gift many photographers strive for.
In another shot Marilyn flings her arms around Arthur Miller. She’s in good company and next door stars the striking image of Elizabeth Taylor adorned with cock feathers, Warhol poses with members of The Factory in various stages of undress, Bob Dylan is undeniably cool in Central Park, Mae West hams it up with Mr American, a life-sized Twiggy intimidates her curvaceous admirers, Capote is ethereal, while Peter Orlovsky and Allen Ginsberg are capture nude, apart from their shaggy beards, in an intimate embrace. But it’s writer Dorothy Parker whom I’m most drawn to. Those baggy tearful eyes and teeth stained from life must have helped fuel her caustic wit and Avedon’s claim, “My photographs don’t go below the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues.”
Recognised for his simple compositions, he captures the essence of his subjects in charming and often confronting realism; revealing a truth rarely seen particularly when it comes to beautiful celebrities being photographed. Those less familiar with his work may not even be aware of his collections of working class New Yorkers and the people of America’s West; many which can be described as endearing, compelling, shocking and poignant. He produced an outstanding documentation of society and in this exhibition we see a woman in 1963 holding up a newspaper with the headline “President Shot Dead” and photos of patients from the East Louisiana State Hospital bordering on the intrusive and yet, so moving and important to tell.
Famed for his fashion photography and minimalist portraits of the famous and the everyday person, he developed a unique stripped-back style and using a white background. His innovative style was copied by his contemporaries and most notably by portrait photographer Annie Leibovitz. Using a large format camera and enormous white backdrop, he’d often head outdoors, making quite a production out of the shoot. You can just imagine the public’s reaction and wonder how many were at the mercy of Avedon’s vision.
Avedon started his photography career at Harper’s Bazaar followed by a 20 year partnership with Vogue and eventually became a staff photographer for the New Yorker in 1992, a position he held until his death in 2004 where he died on assignment after suffering from a cerebral haemorrhage. “He had amassed such an enormous collection of material over six decades, many thousands of negatives and prints,” Ms Dumas from The Richard Avedon Foundation says, “There are images that exist as negatives or contacts that will never be printed.”
Avedon is one of the most influential and significant portrait photographers who lived during a time of great cultural and political change. By uniting his subjects in their humanity, he laid the foundations not just as a photographer, but as an artist.
Even after completing several circuits of the exhibition, if like me, you’re still yearning for more there are private events available like “Fashionable Photography: where art and fashion collide” and “In Your Face: Full Frontal.” The Richard Avedon exhibition runs from 2 August until 17 November www.artgallery.wa.gov.au