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By Suzanne Révy
“I’ve worked out of a series of no’s. 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.” ~Richard Avedon
A probing question or comment can touch a nerve, and perhaps a long buried memory may bubble up to the surface, leaving you momentarily unguarded and vulnerable. An effective therapist will help you understand that memory, but an effective portrait photographer will seize that unguarded moment, and make an exposure. Similar to a therapist, Richard Avedon (1923-2004) was a good listener and interacted with his subjects to draw out their character in striking portraits. Twelve of them are currently on view in Richard Avedon: Portraits 1952-1970 at the Portland Museum of Art in Portland, Maine through June 16, 2019.
This intimate exhibition presents the “Minneapolis Portfolio,” published in 1970 on the occasion of the Minneapolis Art Institute’s seminal exhibition of the artist. It features poets, comedians, actresses and statesmen presented in gelatin silver enlargements from 8”x10” negatives and three multiple-panel contact prints. During this period, Avedon shifted his approach from portraits with a slick, commercial aesthetic to pictures with a deep psychological charge.
One has to wonder what Avedon said to Marilyn Monroe to capture that wary glance away from the camera or the comment he made to the Duke and Duchess of Windsor to elicit such expressions of regret. His portrait of Dwight D. Eisenhower shows neither a war hero nor a statesman, but a grandfather with his soft, clear eyes gazing beyond the frame. Avedon’s framing, too, was notable, creating unusual negative spaces or subtle facial distortions by placing the lens a little too close, building or breaking the tension that came to define the encounters he had with his subjects.
The viewer can sense when the photography session was strained and uncomfortable or light-hearted and playful. Avedon’s portrait of Charlie Chaplin, for example, depicts a man mugging for the camera, holding his fingers up like a devil’s horns and laughing exuberantly. Or a dapper Buster Keaton gently adjusting his hat, elbows akimbo and leaving the frame in a stiff yet oddly humorous gesture. Both were physical comedians and became solid forces within Avedon’s frame.
In addition to the enlargements, it is a real treat to see three group portraits, two triptychs and one diptych, presented as 8”x10” contact prints. Each group is a rhythm of human figures, the light and dark spaces between them are like the keys on a piano. “Andy Warhol and Members of the Factory” was probably one of the first times a transgender woman, Candy Darling, was shown naked. Moving from left to right Avedon presents several other naked men along with several clad in hipster cool black, until we find Warhol at the very edge of frame. Avedon’s group portraits seem at once coherent and disjointed as he toys with the element of time, including the same figure in multiple frames.
This turning point in Avedon’s career marked an approach to portraiture that was fresh and irreverent, fostering mystery and curiosity. Are we alone? Are we defined by others? Avedon’s portraits are mesmerizing. The expressive details in his images are clearly the result of a photographer who was driven to understand the deep well of human emotions and how they sometimes reveal themselves through the cracks of our psyches and the masks of our faces.
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