Richard Avedon exhibition highlights a revolutionary photographer

October 19, 2014
Richard Avedon's photo of farm workers' leader Cesar Chavez, part of the exhibition at the Art Gallery of WA until November 17.

Richard Avedon People
Exhibition, Art Gallery of Western Australia
Until November 17.

More than ever, we live in the “society of the spectacle” that Guy Debord theorised in 1967.

Bourgeois commodification is augmented by reducing reality to a shallow image of itself. However, the spectacle itself “is the historical movement in which we are caught”.

The great American photographer Richard Avedon walked the tightrope of that contradiction all his working life. He ranged from being one of the greatest fashion photographers of all time, a photographic reporter and portraitist.

His genius derived from his mastery of technique and his choice of subject matter. Avedon was a radical who sought to illuminate the revolutionary elements of society.

He began photography during World War II when he took identity shots of US sailors. These essentially were “mug shots” and Avendon expanded on that experience for the rest of his life.

The trademark “Avendon Style” is a three-quarter length standing portrait of a person illuminated by a bright white light against an off-white background. Stripped of artifice ― nobody smiles ― the subject stands before the viewer without defences. The inter-human bond this creates is astonishing.

Avendon grew to be one of the most authoritative figures in US cultural life. He could have used his power to enhance the supremacy of the rich and dominant.

But he chose otherwise, turning his lens towards those at the bottom of society and highlighting those who stood for a different world. His work champions the civil rights movement, the workers’ movement and the anti-Vietnam War radicals.

For me, the stand out of this exhibition was when I found myself before the wise, assertive gaze of the Catholic-anarchist firebrand Dorothy Day. There was nothing to soften the wrinkles on her brow, no pretense to shield the viewer from her strength.

This was the woman who struggled for working class liberation all her life, culminating in serving gaol time while supporting California Chicano farm workers at age 75.

The next portrait is of famed farmworker leader Cesar Chavez, looking impassive in his overalls. It was part of a huge collection of portraits Avedon was commissioned by Rolling Stone to produce for the US bi-centennial in 1976.

It was meant to be of US political leaders, but Avendon read the commission more broadly and included those who were shaping another America from below.

Avendon masterfully used the depth of field setting on his camera to zero in on particular aspects of his sitters. This focuses on some parts of an object while leaving others unclear.

Thus a portrait of glamour queen Marilyn Munroe focuses on her face, not her breasts. Avendon captures a moment of deep reflection in Monroe’s features, a sadness that seems to indicate her ambivalence about her objectification.

Avendon occasionally used photography abstractly. His shot of Malcolm X, all fuzzy and shapelessly dark, seems to represent Malcolm as the threatening shadow of white American racism.

These photographs show Avendon as the master of the spectacle and an ally of those working to break through the illusions of capitalism.

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