'I Was Looking for Beauty and Found It'


Richard Avedon was singing as he stepped into his New York studio--"Stage Fright," an old tune by the Band with its protagonist "who got caught in the spotlight."

That was in October, and the photographer felt something like that himself. He had just appeared on three national television networks and been a featured subject in several international magazines, talking endlessly about the photographs he's made over the past five decades, portraits of the great and terrible, of artists, writers, performers, athletes, leaders and unknowns.

"I'm turning into this media nut," he said then. "I'm more comfortable on talk shows now than I am in real life, because the studio here is so chaotic that I'd do anything to get back on television, where everything is focused."

Now it's five months later, and Avedon sits over a plate of chicken tacos in Hollywood, rubbing his temples, on another wearying bi-coastal schedule. Last fall's tour was for the sake of "An Autobiography," his epic collection of nearly 300 images, now in its second printing despite its $100 price and some scattered unfriendly reviews.

Now there is "Evidence" (Random House and Eastman Kodak), another retrospective of Avedon's most important work. This collection, all black and white, ranges from rediscovered pictures of 1940s Harlem to portraits of his dying father, which Avedon hopes communicate an underlying view on death and beauty, comedy and horror.

If "An Autobiography" was the photographer's vision of his own history, "Evidence" offers a less subjective view and serves as the catalogue to a museum retrospective of the same name that opened Thursday at the Whitney in New York and that will come to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art in the summer of 1995.

Not that these retrospectives mean the photographer has come to the end of a long and sometimes controversial career. In 1992, Avedon signed on as the first staff photographer for the New Yorker, where his newest images have included a group portrait of gays in the military, surreal montages on the Academy Awards, and a somber series of portraits of survivors from the Kennedy years.

On this trip to Hollywood, his schedule includes photographing Steven Spielberg for a New Yorker series on Hollywood players and breakfasting in Santa Barbara with former high-fashion model Suzi Parker--their first reunion in 20 years.

"I'm going to trust certain people to say 'You've lost it,' " says Avedon, who turns 71 this year. "You know, I'm not going to be photographing a tree out of the window, like (Edward) Steichen. At the moment I feel in full command. I'm still, as always, concerned with what to do next and not repeating myself."

He hints that he may even be tiring of the empty white backgrounds that have been a signature of many of his portraits and of such major projects as "In the American West," his stark series of portraits of drifters, coal miners, waitresses, migrant workers, truckers, adolescents and others across the rural Western states.

"I could stop right now, in terms of the work that expresses myself," he says. "And I have a body of work that's fine. But I love the idea that maybe I could find a last stage that may go on for 10 years, in which I would develop something completely new to me, challenging to me."

One option is a raw, deeply subjective style of documentary photography that he practiced in his montages of the Academy Awards and the 1991 Volpi Ball in Venice, Italy, billed as the last great aristocratic ball. Avedon's photographs from that event were intense and claustrophobic, presenting an ancient subculture caught in a desperate fade.

"You really felt the sinking ship," Avedon says. "You just felt that this would never happen again."

Both "Evidence" and "An Autobiography" include a ghostly scene from Berlin's Brandenburg Gate, New Year's Eve 1989, when East and West Germany were welded back together in a celebration the photographer found frightening. Other photographs from that frantic six-hour shoot captured a night sky filled with rockets and pistol-fire, young men climbing walls and signposts and raising champagne bottles to their lips. Not a few celebrants are caught with expressions of horror, their faces grossly over-lit, as if caught in a searchlight.

"Kids were climbing the scaffolding to get up on the top of the bridge, and it fell--three people died," Avedon recalls. "They were throwing bottles and cherry bombs or something. Bottles were crashing down with the excitement of it, and it was really dangerous. And you can see that in some of these faces."

With these pictures, Avedon has arrived at the edge of something more biting and personal than his aborted documentary for Life magazine about Harlem in 1949, published for the first time in his new book. But he's rarely been accepted as a true believer in photojournalism by critics, who sneer at his roots as a fashion photographer and his decades of work for Harper's Bazaar and Vogue. Avedon's early '80s pictures from the West earned some scathing reviews accusing him of taking an Eastern view of Westerners as haggard, hopeless and defeated.

Some critics also questioned the fairness of the white backdrop, isolating his subjects from their natural surroundings, his 8-by-10 view camera presenting their human flaws with a cruel precision. And there was Avedon's willingness to set up and pose his subjects, as he did for a striking image of a hairless and shirtless beekeeper he covered with bees to create a precise design.

"Those are other people's ideas and other people's rules," he says of his critics. "When I started, the high road was (Henri) Cartier-Bresson's you do not crop an image at all, " says Avedon. When he began at Harper's Bazaar in 1945 under the tutelage of art director Alexey Brodovitch, Avedon says, "I started retouching, cropping, all from Brodovitch. I learned from him there was no difference between a camera and a paintbrush."

Almost from the beginning of his professional career, Avedon has experimented with a variety of photographic genres, from fashion work to photojournalism, often succeeding in bringing some personal vision to a given style. So in 1972, he could capture an elegant and serene Groucho Marx or spend a frenzied afternoon with pianist Oscar Levant the same year as he was documenting his father's final days.

Avedon's best fashion pictures found an elegant reality, incorporating the drama and blur of life's action. "When it told something about the nature of being a woman in relation to their looks, and the anxiety that went with that--something I knew about clothes and women and facades--that contradiction made me a strong fashion photographer."

Likewise, Avedon's self-portraits reveal a serious presence, the unblinking artist, rather than the pleasant host he is in interviews. For him, flattery is photography's least-welcome vulgarity.

"My self-portraits, the ones that I've shown so far, don't differ from my portraits of anyone else," he says over the restaurant clamor. "The confusion is in confusing a man's work with his real life. Art is art and real life is real life. Otherwise you'd just have these endless videos of people chatting."

It is his portraiture that has remained the backbone of his work, in spite of his influence on fashion and accomplishments in other genres, says Jane Livingston, guest curator of the "Evidence" exhibition.

"I just don't think you can look at photographic portraiture without an awareness of what Dick has done," Livingston says, noting that generations of photographers, from Irving Penn to Annie Leibovitz and beyond, have felt Avedon's influence, "not only because the work has been so widely seen, but also because it is so distinctive."

In addition, she says of Avedon's work, "There is this prodigious kind of variety and this mastery of many, many things. There are few, few photographers who have done that. I think of Irving Penn, I think of (Eugene) Atget, of Steichen, of Bernice Abbott. There are a few, but I think he belongs in that company."

Both books connect all these facets of his photography in a way Avedon says he could not express or argue until now. A pattern has emerged across the decades. "You see that a black woman walking through the streets of Harlem is not so different from someone walking through the streets of Paris," he says. "I was looking for beauty and found it."

That continuing variety of visual interests is reflected on the top floor of his New York studio, a red-brick converted laundry building, where he's worked for 20 years. There his own framed and unframed pictures are scattered along the walls with works by his onetime rival Penn and other photographers. He's collected images since he was an adolescent and they remain a resource for inspiration.

But Avedon has been buried under the weight of his own past these last two years, printing and cataloguing all of his work, beginning with 1945. The first results are the two books and the museum show, to be followed by a book on the 1960s next year and a series of four "teaching books."

His reasons for summing up his career now, as he is in the midst of one of his busiest periods, are simple. "I just wanted to do it before they do it to me," he says. "You never know when you're going to be a geezer. It could happen tomorrow morning."

Barring that, Avedon expects to continue as before, making portraits and documentary photographs for the New Yorker, or fashion pictures for the designer Versace. His name is usually enough now to win a sitting with virtually any subject who interests him, as revealing as his camera can be.

"If someone decides not to give anything, and be suspicious of me, then it's a picture of someone who's suspicious," he says. "That's terrific ."

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