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Superficial but not shallow

An exhibition upholds Avedon's belief: 'You can only get beyond the

July 15, 2009|Leah Ollman

SAN DIEGO — Richard Avedon was brilliantly superficial as a portrait photographer. That's not necessarily faint praise nor an oxymoron: He held great faith in surface appearances.

If Oscar Wilde quipped that only shallow people don't judge by appearances, Avedon went even further, declaring that, in his line of work, the surface is ultimately all there is: "Scratch the surface, and if you're really lucky, you find more surface."

And: "You can't get at the thing itself, the real nature of the sitter, by stripping away the surface. The surface is all you've got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface."

The veneers with which Avedon worked were among the most recognizable in the late-20th century human pantheon: Charlie Chaplin; the Dalai Lama; Presidents Eisenhower, Carter, Ford, Reagan and Bush; Abbie Hoffman; Rudolf Nureyev; Bob Dylan; Cesar Chavez; Bella Abzug. "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power" at the San Diego Museum of Art tracks the fashion photographer's parallel, seven-decade course (he died in 2004 at age 81) as a portraitist through about 150 pictures. The show, accompanied by a hefty and insightful catalog, originated last fall as a 250-print survey at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

As Avedon shifted his focus from politician to poet, physicist to philosopher, he vacillated as well between editorialist, satirist and stoic humanist. What he practiced most consistently was the art of graphic design. He arranged those mostly familiar surfaces frontally against the blank whiteness of the seamless backdrop. He manipulated their shapes within the frame, attentive to lights and darks, solids and voids, stillness and movement.

His approach verges on the formulaic -- it's often noted that Avedon's experience as a photographer began in the Merchant Marines during World War II, shooting tens of thousands of faces, mug-shot style, for military IDs. The narrow range acts as a foil to the limitless idiosyncrasies of his subjects. All attention zeros in on that unique surface, its textures and form, and what that appearance might express of the essence beneath.

In a startling 1958 portrait, printed huge for the exhibition, Dorothy Parker, legendary for her merciless wit, gazes slightly downward toward the camera in an attitude of characteristic superiority; Avedon's tiny reflection is trapped in her dark, knowing eyes. She is all aloof alertness, head tilted against gravity's pull, twin sagging pouches beneath the eyes her only visible concession to vulnerability.

A few years earlier, Avedon had photographed Marian Anderson as a living wind instrument -- eyes closed, cheekbones all but pointing to the aperture of her mouth, mid-note. Strands of her wavy, dark hair hover against the white ground as if lifted by sound, embodying it.

Stripped of background, props and dramatic lighting, Avedon's portraits have a distilled clarity that often achieves the iconic but at other times sinks to the blandly taxonomic.

For "The Family," for instance, a series of 69 images published in Rolling Stone in 1976, he adopted a stance of insistent neutrality, photographing each subject straight-on, from head to thigh, with minimal variation.

As a who's who collection of the period's major political players (Henry Kissinger, Jerry Brown, Barbara Jordan, et al.), it makes a significant document -- a late 20th century answer to Mathew Brady's Gallery of Illustrious Americans -- but visually, the reductive approach grows repetitive. The pendulum of interest swings out of the frame, toward what we already know and feel about each subject.

Rarely are those feelings as neutral as Avedon's faux invisibility, for he gravitated toward personalities thick with zeal and vision, righteousness as well as self-righteousness, personalities who either claimed historical import or had it thrust upon them: Malcolm X, captured as a blur of contrasts; an anonymous Vietnamese napalm victim, her face a mask of burned and stretched skin; George Wallace, who appears three times in the show, first young, proud and ambitious, then stern and sober, and finally damaged and bitter.

To study even the carapaces of these power sources lends us the privileged position that Avedon occupied, face to face with stature and celebrity. The voyeuristic thrill never wears thin, which is likely why the San Diego museum (which also hosted an Annie Leibovitz show not that long ago) is not the only museum to put Avedon in a crowd-pleasing summer slot. The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art just opened a large retrospective. (Additionally, Avedon's fashion work is the season's centerpiece at New York's International Center of Photography.)

Avedon has become this year's curatorial equivalent of summer reading -- familiar and accessible, potentially provocative but unabashedly, deliciously superficial.



'Richard Avedon: Portraits

of Power'

Where: San Diego Museum of Art, 1450 El Prado, Balboa Park, San Diego

When: 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesday, Fridays and Saturdays; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursdays; noon-5 p.m. Sundays. Ends Sept. 6.

Price: $12

Contact: (619) 232-7931,

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