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'I Was Looking for Beauty and Found It'

March 27, 1994|STEVE APPLEFORD | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Richard Avedon was singing as he stepped into his New York studio--"Stage Fright," an old tune by the Band with its protagonist "who got caught in the spotlight."

That was in October, and the photographer felt something like that himself. He had just appeared on three national television networks and been a featured subject in several international magazines, talking endlessly about the photographs he's made over the past five decades, portraits of the great and terrible, of artists, writers, performers, athletes, leaders and unknowns.

"I'm turning into this media nut," he said then. "I'm more comfortable on talk shows now than I am in real life, because the studio here is so chaotic that I'd do anything to get back on television, where everything is focused."

Now it's five months later, and Avedon sits over a plate of chicken tacos in Hollywood, rubbing his temples, on another wearying bi-coastal schedule. Last fall's tour was for the sake of "An Autobiography," his epic collection of nearly 300 images, now in its second printing despite its $100 price and some scattered unfriendly reviews.

Now there is "Evidence" (Random House and Eastman Kodak), another retrospective of Avedon's most important work. This collection, all black and white, ranges from rediscovered pictures of 1940s Harlem to portraits of his dying father, which Avedon hopes communicate an underlying view on death and beauty, comedy and horror.

If "An Autobiography" was the photographer's vision of his own history, "Evidence" offers a less subjective view and serves as the catalogue to a museum retrospective of the same name that opened Thursday at the Whitney in New York and that will come to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the summer of 1995.

Not that these retrospectives mean the photographer has come to the end of a long and sometimes controversial career. In 1992, Avedon signed on as the first staff photographer for the New Yorker, where his newest images have included a group portrait of gays in the military, surreal montages on the Academy Awards, and a somber series of portraits of survivors from the Kennedy years.

On this trip to Hollywood, his schedule includes photographing Steven Spielberg for a New Yorker series on Hollywood players and breakfasting in Santa Barbara with former high-fashion model Suzi Parker--their first reunion in 20 years.

"I'm going to trust certain people to say 'You've lost it,' " says Avedon, who turns 71 this year. "You know, I'm not going to be photographing a tree out of the window, like (Edward) Steichen. At the moment I feel in full command. I'm still, as always, concerned with what to do next and not repeating myself."

He hints that he may even be tiring of the empty white backgrounds that have been a signature of many of his portraits and of such major projects as "In the American West," his stark series of portraits of drifters, coal miners, waitresses, migrant workers, truckers, adolescents and others across the rural Western states.

"I could stop right now, in terms of the work that expresses myself," he says. "And I have a body of work that's fine. But I love the idea that maybe I could find a last stage that may go on for 10 years, in which I would develop something completely new to me, challenging to me."

One option is a raw, deeply subjective style of documentary photography that he practiced in his montages of the Academy Awards and the 1991 Volpi Ball in Venice, Italy, billed as the last great aristocratic ball. Avedon's photographs from that event were intense and claustrophobic, presenting an ancient subculture caught in a desperate fade.

"You really felt the sinking ship," Avedon says. "You just felt that this would never happen again."

Both "Evidence" and "An Autobiography" include a ghostly scene from Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, New Year's Eve 1989, when East and West Germany were welded back together in a celebration the photographer found frightening. Other photographs from that frantic six-hour shoot captured a night sky filled with rockets and pistol-fire, young men climbing walls and signposts and raising champagne bottles to their lips. Not a few celebrants are caught with expressions of horror, their faces grossly over-lit, as if caught in a searchlight.

"Kids were climbing the scaffolding to get up on the top of the bridge, and it fell--three people died," Avedon recalls. "They were throwing bottles and cherry bombs or something. Bottles were crashing down with the excitement of it, and it was really dangerous. And you can see that in some of these faces."

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