20 December 2008

On Avedon Portraits of Power (again)

"Avedon never made any pretence to objectivity; the notion of the dispassionate lens he wrote off as delusion. [. . .] Like a caricaturist, he thought that lies and cruelty settled like a crust on the physiognomy. All he had to do was to supply a lit exposure of the particular features in which moral intelligence or its absence had been inscribed." ~ Simon Schama
"I try to allow the people really - if that's possible - to photograph themselves." ~ Richard Avedon

"The pose is a photographic dimension which goes beyond the intention of the photographer and suggests the independence, asserts even the very existence, of the subject. The pose is the key to catch the independent, socially ignored, unsaid unacknowledged i the photographic act." ~ Murat Nemet-Nejat (The Peripheral Space of Photography, Green Integer, 2003)
Avedon's portraits, of course, prompt us to think about the sorts of encounter - actually, of interaction, "encounter" makes it seem too passive on both sides - between photographer and subject. I've commented on this topic here (you can find a link to Schama's essay there too).

In looking at Portraits of Power one of the essays in the book - Frank Goodyear, III "A Brief Intense Intimacy: Avedon & His Subjects" - makes clear that Avedon hardly considered his studio (or any other location in which he made a portrait) neutral territory. He prepared - doing background reading, making sketches, and so forth. In other words, his lack of objectivity or neutrality - whatever that might mean - was studied. But, while preparation might give a photographer like Avedon an edge in his interactions with subjects, even Goodyear, cannot sustain the claim that the photographer managed or even tried to assert what he refers to as "ultimate control." Indeed, the essay makes clear that the relation between portraitist and subject is an interaction, often a contested one. This lead me back to some observation that photographer Jerry Thompson has made about the "struggle for control of the picture" - between photographer and subject - as his teacher Walker Evans made his famous 1936 portrait of Allie Mae Burroughs.

Thompson talks about how the way Evans set his camera so close to his subject prompted a response (discomfort? resistance?) from her, thereby inviting "a truth beyond his prediction or control." As I re-read this section of the book I realized that Thompson is talking about the uses of verisimilitude. But here he is helping us make sense of the sort of intimate interactions that Avedon had with those whose portraits he made. In those interactions there is a struggle for control.

This leads to a final connection I'd like to make, this time to the argument that Murat Nemet-Nejat makes in his terrific little book. He calls attention to the persistent "tension ... between pose as something imposed by the photographer on the subject and pose as something asserted, defined by the subject." He claims that insofar as it trades on the notion that the photographer ultimately is able to assert control of her subject through framing, composition, lighting, and so forth, the pretension of photography to the status of art falls flat. He goes so far as to suggest that in some instances photography is a medium of reflection in which the relationship between viewer and subject succeeds ore or less in "pushing the photographer aside." I want to take this idea up in another post. For now it is enough to refer you back to the comment from Avedon I've lifted above. Perhaps it is possible.
* Jerry L. Thompson. 2003. Truth & Photography: Notes on Looking and Photographing. Ian R. Dee, especially pages 36-45.

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Blogger e.e.nixon said...

I'm grateful for the time you've spent on Avedon. To me he embodies a great many of the contradictions and conflicts confronting portrait photographers these days. Part of the story which is not emphasized is the tendency to self-revelation or willing participation or complicity by the subject -- a feature that was pretty fully developed among the class of subjects Avedon dealt with in his commercial work, less so in "From the American West" and not at all in the Evans work an excerpt of which you quote in this post. Now a days and particularly among the young, it's hard to find a subject with even a smidgen of reticence. Consequently, the tussle you're describing takes on a totally different dynamic. Sometimes one feels as a photographer the intense need to protect the subject from making a fool of himself -- previously it was the reverse.

But the other aspect of Avedon which seems to be the magnet for criticism particularly by photographers is his visual style. For example, I've read critiques based on the purported excess amount of burning and dodging. As if the simple fact of the hand of the photographer in the darkroom somehow sullies the true nature of the result.

On the other hand, I suppose style is particularly at issue when you talk about commercial portraiture for print. In part because there is always the Svengali eminence of the art director in the background. I was looking at the Taschen collection of Arnold Newman's portraits (which I admire a great deal) this week and noticing the mannerism and compositional tropes sticking out more than they had the last time I looked. Not at all the same kettle of fish as Avendon in terms of environment, but in a way both increasingly victims of the passing parade of fashion and the ever vanishing sense of self-consciousness that translates reality-TV to... what? Reality-reality? Or perhaps reality-Reality?


21 December, 2008 10:01  
Blogger Peter J. Crowley said...

I am a big fan of both Avedon and Evans. I met Walker Evans in the early 70's at Yale, sitting in on a seminar while doing a photo feature on him. One of the most important things that was said to me while a student of Photography was "Every image you make is a self portrait" Having spent the last thirty eight years creating self portraits I've come to define my work with these two thoughts. "The roll of the photographer is that of a voyeur, never reaching his subject's soul, But for brief instances when the subject's heart is offered, only to be interpreted and re-created with a cross breeding of the image makers own soul."
I often work with a subject/muse repeatedly. After working with one women for over two years I came to this conclusion "we dance this creative minuet both thinking we are in control both knowing that neither of us is, there is only the moment it is brief, lasting forever." Be it a momentary meeting and photograph or a long project control is defined by the push and pull of the two peoples souls and how they choose to intersect at the moment of creation. enjoy pjc
Good blog I will try to stop more often.

22 December, 2008 09:08  

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