Gerald L. Boerner


JerryPhoto_8x8_P1010031 I visited this exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Art (SDMA) and found to my delight an assemblage of some of the great photographs from the career of one of the most notable fashion and portrait photographers of the last half century. Richard Avedon has photographed the rich and famous as well as the poor. This exhibit also presented sixty-nine images of the movers and shakers of the American government during the 1970s and 1980s. While it is no longer on display on the West coast, I would encourage anyone interested in photography to catch any exhibit that includes any of the images included in this exhibition.  .  GLB


The Exhibit:

Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power
San Diego Museum of Art
June 6 through September 6, 2009

Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power traces Avedon’s interest in and fascination with American politics through the 1950s until the photographer’s death in 2004. Organized by the Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., with the cooperation of the Richard Avedon Foundation, New York, and the Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power contains many rarely seen photographs drawn from the collection of the Richard Avedon Foundation, including works that have never before been exhibited or published.

Format and Presentation: All photographs were mounted in frames behind glass. They varied in size from 8 by 10 inches up to poster size or larger. They were all silver gelatin prints from film showing excellent darkroom development. He allowed some edges of the prints to develop to black to create a type of frame around the individual prints. There were a few color prints, but most were in black and white.

Review of the Exhibit:

“During his six-decade career, Richard Avedon was arguably the most important American fashion photographer and portraitist. Avedon mastered his craft while serving in the Merchant Marines during World War II, and he found employment after the war with Harper’s Bazaar and Theater Arts. He quickly rose to prominence in his field, invigorating fashion photography of the time by staging fictional tableaux and developing an unprecedented theatrical style. He moved to Vogue in 1966 and to The New Yorker in 1992, and he continued to be an innovator in fashion photography and portraiture, as well as print and television advertising, until his death in 2004.”

Richard Avedon was indeed a photographic craftsman. From his early magazine work for Harper’s Bazaar and Theater Arts, he proceeded to photograph both the rich and famous along with those out of power. As you enter the gallery, you come face to face with a 3’ by 3’ portrait of Charlie Chaplin with his fingers pointing like a pair of horns out of his head. Just beyond that, we see a portrait of one of the last slaves still living. In all of these photos, he has the vision of just how to light the subject to create the appropriate mood. While he allowed the subjects to assume a pose that was most comfortable, he positioned his camera to compose just the right “take” on each subject.

richard_avedon_07 One of the things that I felt when viewing these images was how he captured the eyes of his subjects. In some cases, the eyes were wide open and the spectral highlights capture your attention. In others, he lit the scene so that these highlights were missing — the person stared out as if thorough a morning fog. His capture of the eyes might be pensive, agitated, fearful, forlorn, or lonely. One of the first images that I saw after the Charlie Chaplin portrait was a shot of William Cosby, who had been born a slave. This portrait showed the elderly black man staring into the distance with a “resolved” glare, as if he were looking back over his life. Avedon’s portraits have a way of telling a story without a word other than “…born a slave.” This picture indeed says a thousand words with his image jumping out through the eyes and use of highlights and shadows.

The use of highlights and shadows was a skill evidenced throughout the exhibit. It was interesting to compare, for instance, the traditional head portrait of Henry Kissinger as Secretary of State with the more pensive portrait taken of him years later. In the latter portrait, Kissinger was lighted so that the aged skin tones and heavy wrinkles of the face told a story of the burden that he had carried during his years of public service. While still flattering, the selective accentuation of these tonal variations made for an eye-catching, compelling photograph. This was but one example of Avedon’s wise use of light.

His documentary images were also eye-popping. He captured the Embassy Staff in Saigon just before the fall of the Embassy. He illustrated the full impact of war upon these staff members. His portraits of the G.I.’s, of the Vietnamese woman caught in a napalm “bath”, his capture of the fear in the people are so realistic that they could be the cause of nightmares in children. Also, he caught the lawyers and defendants involved in the “Chicago Seven” trial in the late 1960s. The realism of photographing the realities of conflict without being limited by the setting is to be admired. He demonstrated his “craft” in less than optimal circumstances, an indication of real talent!

avedonthefamily1-410x333 On display also is the groundbreaking series of portraits, The Family that has been commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine. He captured, in rather sterile, studio poses, sixty-nine portraits of elected officials, government bureaucrats, lawyers & lobbyists, captains of industry, and union officials. These sixty-nine portraits were all 8 by 10 inches, mounted in frames behind glass, and arranged in three rows of twenty –three portraits each. Just the number of photos and their arrangement had a major impact on any observer seeing the sheer mass of this display. These were the men and women of power during the 1970s and 1980s! This gallery of the elite was not arranged with similar individuals grouped together, but their impact was increased by the interspersing of portraits of individuals from different groups in juxtaposition. However, in each of these portraits, Avedon composed the images in slightly different ways, so they were not mirror images, as if from an assembly line. And, as usual, the eyes speak loud and clear so that each portrait told its own story. With a little bit of background in the context of the 1970s and 1980s, one could hear each of these portraits telling an important part of the story of that era in American history.

I would suggest that anyone planning to visit this exhibit would be well-advised to read a bit about the political history of the last half of the 20th century. These photos tell visually what textbooks tell in words: the character of the players in the shaping the policies of our nation. The book by the Corcoran Gallery on this exhibit contains essays and photos present in this exhibit. This book can aid one’s preparation for understanding what is being portrayed in these portraits. Bibliographic information is found at the end of this report.

2734604473_b5e33dc1cdThis exhibit presents Avedon’s work in a sequence of periods. During in each of these periods, Avedon utilized slightly different perspectives. These can be seen in some images being more carefree, some being more somber, others being very pensive, and still others being very reflective of the dark side of man. But during all of these periods, he was able to capture the subjects of his portraits in a variety of moods appropriate to the subject and the context of America at that point in history.

It should be noted that some of the images on exhibit portray the nude body, primarily of males. This did not always reflect the sexual orientation of those being photographed, but the lighting employed was used to obtain the best image of the subject. Some parts of the anatomy of some of his subjects were of significant proportion, which he portrayed as just another part of the character of the person being photographed. I include this note as a warning to those who do not wish to view such images. Most of the exhibit consists of clothed individual, so a word to the wise should be sufficient.

barack-obama_885652i To end this review on a high note, one of the most impacting images on display was that of our current president, Barach Obama as an Illinois state senator. This portrait was taken with Obama in shirt sleeves and sans a tie. He was about to make the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic Convention. The portrait caught the energy, determination and physical attributes of this future president of these United States. Time will tell how he will appear after his four or eight years in that office. But in this portrait, he inspires confidence and hope.

Finally, one can view Avedon’s portraits in one of many magazines. He was prolific in his productivity over his lifetime. But it takes seeing this mass of work in display at one time and in one place to truly appreciate the full impact of his body of work. I believe that this body of work should be required viewing of most students of photography, digital or film. In addition, I would suggest that as one views this exhibit, one looks carefully at the use of light and shadow to create the high-impact images on display in this exhibit. It is a real lesson in how to do portrait photography. Also, his wisdom in allowing each of his subjects to determine their own posing position had a profound impact on these images. Avedon placed his camera in such a way to capture the best rendering of his subject given their self-selected pose and the lighting in use. He then was able to capture these images that show his subjects in an extremely relaxed position in the best light possible. These are all lessons we can all benefit from in our own photographs!


Steidl & Partners. (2008) Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power. Co-published with The Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. & The Richard Avedon Foundation (ISBN: 978-3-86521-675-5)

Richard Avedon photographed the faces of politics throughout his career and this book brings together his political portraits for the first time. Juxtaposing images of elite government, media, and labor officials with photographs of countercultural activists, writers and artists, and ordinary citizens caught up in national debates, it explores a five-decade taxonomy of politics and power by one of America’s best-known artists.

Richard Avedon’s Web Site…