New York Photo Review
Volume 3 Issue 25 July 18 to 31, 2012

Powerful Men
Richard Avedon
Murals and Portraits
Don Burmeister
The Mission Council by Richard Avedon. Source:
Richard Avedon, "The Mission Council" 1971

Forget the up-market snootiness and no-cost barred, if highly innovative layout, and go see some of the most incisive photographic portraits taken in the 20th century – Richard Avedon at Gagosian Gallery.

Richard Avedon (1993-2004) was already an extremely well known fashion photographer in the 1950’s when he began to expand his vision to include portraiture. Taking equipment and techniques from fashion, not to mention his extensive connections, he started a life-long project of making high quality,large format, studio portraits of the rich and famous. (He later expanded this to the not so rich and famous as well.) The current show features four group portraits, all taken between 1969 and 1971, that both establish Avedon’s aesthetic stance and remain remarkable records of this discordant period of American history.

Using an unusual technique, Avedon started his series of group portraits close to home in 1969 with one of Andy Warhol and his ‘Factory’ members, among them Paul Morrissey, Joe Dellesandro, Viva, Candy Darling, and assorted naked male actors. Rather than a wide angle lens, or an old-fashioned panoramic camera, he used an 8x10 inch camera, then standard in studio photography. Framing his subjects a few at a time, he then panned his camera to the next group, often catching the extra arms or sides in the frame. The idea was to then to line up the frames to create an over-all view. Though Avedon took these pictures in October, 1969, he did not print the final versions until 1975.

Perhaps he saw the Warhol picture as a practice run, because only 6 days after taking them he was in Chicago using the same technique to photograph the “Chicago Seven,” the group of activists and showmen who were being tried for conspiring to riot during the 1968 Democratic convention. These pictures were printed shortly thereafter and created a sensation. In an age when 20 x 24 inches was considered a large print, Avedon printed the three frames of the picture 10 feet high by 20 feet long. But it was not the size that made these portraits memorable, nor the fact that the large format negatives made the prints fine-grained, nor even that they were impeccably printed –– it was Avedon’s ability to draw out the personalities behind the faces. We see each man as a distinct individual: Abbie Hoffman’s aggressive stance, the youthful fervor of Jerry Rubin, the more distanced, world weary look of Dave Dellinger, and the boyish, one is tempted to say guilty-look, of Tom Hayden. It is a remarkable, penetrating record of its era.

The Chicago Seven by Richard Avedon. Source:
Richard Avedon, "The Chicago Seven" 1969

During this period Avedon continued with his fashion work, but began devoting more time to portraiture, and also to documenting the anti-war movement. The exhibition at Gagosian is very smartly designed so that the four large group portraits can be seen without distraction, but tucked away near each are a large number of smaller images, as well as Avedon’s extensively marked up work prints.

By the spring of 1971 Avedon was in Saigon. The details of how and why he was there are unknown to me, but he obviously had access to people at the highest level. We see some formal portraits of U.S. soldiers, but also portraits of victims of napalm bombings. Then just a few days after photographing the deformed faces of Vietnamese women he is making the large, formal portrait, “The Mission Council” of the highest ranking U.S. officials in Vietnam. Eleven men are standing before the camera in an order negotiated by seniority, with an empty space for one man who did not arrive. In the center is General Creighton Abrams Jr., the Commander of the American forces in Vietnam, with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker on his left. The image is unforgettable. Eleven, dour, white men. There is an air of failure with a tinge of evil. Avedon famously engaged with the people he was photographing, but in this picture he may as well have been pointing a cannon at them. And the war went on for another four years.

The final mural in the show is trivial by comparison. “Allan Ginsberg’s Family” records a formal occasion for the release of Allan Ginsberg’s father’s book of poetry. It lacks both the transgressive charge of the Andy Warhol Factory mural, or the human/political charge of the Chicago Seven or the Mission Council images. Although it does remind us that some of life’s ordinary occasions still went on, even in those days. Tucked into a side chamber is Avedon’s most significant work with Ginsberg –– his double portrait in the nude of Ginsberg and his lover, poet Peter Orlovsky taken in 1963. A delicately cropped version of this image appeared on the cover of the Evergreen Review in 1970, and still carries a bit of a charge.

Richard Avedon continued for decades after to produce wonderful, insightful portraits of all sorts of people, Henry Kissinger famously asked the photographer to “Be gentle to me.” To this reviewer, who is old enough to remember back to the 70’s, Avedon’s photographs of that troubled time still ring true.

Richard Avedon
Murals and Portraits

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Friday, May 4 to
Friday, July 27, 2012
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