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 AvedonAvedon'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).
"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)
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.