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The Vision Thing

As a major Richard Avedon exhibition opens in London, Andrew Solomon meets America’s most famous and elusive photographer in New York.

Richard Avedon, 2004. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Richard Avedon, 2004. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Look deep into the eyes of some of Richard Avedon’s best-known portraits — William Casby (former slave), Igor Stravinsky (great composer) — and what you will see is Richard Avedon. Some trick of lighting causes his own image to dance in the windows of his subjects’ souls. When I finally met him and asked about this he maintained that it was unintentional, but he seemed rather pleased about it. “All my portraits are self-portraits,” Avedon has said, and that is their essence. No matter how straightforward it may look, an Avedon photo is planned in its every detail by Avedon. They’re pictures of the way he sees his subjects, and he couldn’t care less whether that’s how they are or whether that’s how they see themselves or whether that’s how other people see them. If you mention that Dorothy Parker wasn’t really that ugly, that Isaiah Berlin isn’t that sour, that if Oscar Levant was that disintegrated it should have been his secret, he shrugs. “To say it in the toughest way possible, and the most unpleasant way, what right do Cézanne’s apples have to tell Cézanne how to paint them?” he once asked.

Early work on the streets of Harlem gave way to portraiture and fashion photography, and the tension between those two modes runs through his work. His critics say that he makes everyone look the same, with that trademark white background, but what’s the same is him, not the photos. Those who want to dismiss him say that it’s all portraiture. The only real insight here is the shared one: it’s all the same thing, all Avedon, all perfectly lucid and controlled. It’s about surface: “Scratch the surface,” Avedon once said, “and if you’re lucky, you’ll find more surface.” But in the hands of the master, surface isn’t at all superficial. His clean, enormous photos have a focus sharper than the human eye’s, and every pore, every fold of clothing, every hair is telling you something. These pictures beg for close reading. Choose any detail, no matter how tiny or obscure, and ask why. Avedon has an answer. And look at his lifetime’s work all together, and you will find that it is about a single, monumental vision of the world, that each individual photo is only a hint, a fragment, of some larger truth of perception, Avedon’s personal unified field theory.

The anecdotes behind the photos are famous. The Duke and Duchess of Windsor were better at presenting themselves to the camera than anyone; Avedon, knowing how they loved dogs, told from behind his camera of his own dog’s death in an accident, and so caught forever the crestfallen, sad faces of a Duke and Duchess royally jaded and useless. The photo of Ezra Pound was snapped at the moment when he revealed to Pound that he was Jewish. But usually the story of the photograph cannot be reduced to a one-liner. When it’s a celebrity, he has just an hour or two, and since he’s a celebrity himself, he gets special treatment (the Nureyev’s erection story is not so different from the Liz Taylor putting on her own makeup story, and both of those after what he did to Gabrielle Chanel’s throat) and he pretty quickly gets something that no one else has ever been able to get from people hardened against cameras. Perhaps his most arresting images are the big group shots: the Chicago Seven, Warhol’s Factory, the War Council, and Allen Ginsberg with his family. Look at them attentively, take into account the time that lapsed as he took them (they’re divided panels of images) and you can see everyone’s relationship to everything else, what the pecking orders are, who leads, who follows. You can even see how those relationships are being re-negotiated in front of the photographer. Look who touches whom, who faces the camera, who looks jealously at someone else’s bigger presence. It’s all there.

Everyone has been influenced by the fashion work. You have only to say to a photographer or critic, “Dovima with elephants” — Avedon’s famous 1955 picture of the model Dovima wearing Yves Saint Laurent’s first dress for Christian Dior, walking towards the camera with elephants behind her — and whomever you’re talking to throws his arms back and up in imitation of the model’s unforgettable posture. Marella Agnelli’s absurdly long neck (he retouched her shoulders to dramatise the attenuation) is irresistibly untouchable. Avedon’s portraits often get called “merciless” but his work can be so beautiful and so glamorous that it becomes iconic; the poses he invented for specific subjects and models are now poses we all use to connote purest elegance.

Freudians made much of Jacob Israel Avedon, Avedon’s 1974 show at the Museum of Modern Art of photos of his father decaying from cancer. There is some conventional wisdom according to which you should beautify what you love, and in this light, Avedon seems no kinder to his father than Oedipus was to his. But the pictures are rigorous and clear-eyed. Avedon has said that there is no such thing as truth in photography, that there is only accuracy, but these photos are full of truth, and truth is a kind of adoration. There is truth also in his astonishing 1963 pictures of the East Louisiana State Hospital, a mental hospital in Jackson, which narrate both the private world of each figure and the bare story of their collective disconnection. He spent a week in the Jackson asylum to do this series, photographing all day, sleeping at night on the ward, the terrible faces and compositions of the next day’s photos crowding his dreams and his wakefulness. Avedon’s stunningly lovely sister, Louise, went mad and killed herself in an institution at the age of 40, and her story lingers in this tragic body of work. There is a clue here about something knowing and sad that informs all his images, what is explicit in the asylum photographs is implicit everywhere else.

Marxists had a picnic with In the American West 1979-1984. The five-year project to photograph people in the western states resulted in an exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum, a book, and print sales. The point was made any number of times that he sold his prints for more than most of these people would earn in two years (though everyone who was in the show got a free print and a copy of the book), and that his documenting their misery and showing them in an art museum fed into the cycle of oppression that had caused that poverty in the first place. The people from the west, white backgrounds again, look straight at the viewer, their expressions dour and hollow and empty. It’s true that there are plenty of perfectly happy people living in the western US, but what Avedon wanted was a kind of grit, pulled out of its distracting location and revealed for what it was. He found people who fitted with the project he had preconceived. If you look at it as documentary material, it is barren and contrived, but if you look at is as a vision, then it will make you shiver. Just one of the photos in Avedon’s recent Autobiography is of himself, and there is almost no text. The documents of what he has seen, artfully arranged in striking diptychs, are his story; he exists by looking, which is why he looks and looks as if his life depended on it.

Interviewing Richard Avedon is not easy. With effort, you can get past his assistant Bill, and speak with Norma, who runs his professional life and who makes it clear that Avedon does not like being interviewed. You are sent clippings to read, told to prepare yourself, told that he is thinking about seeing you. Every day you telephone to plead for an audience. You ask people you know in common to call and recommend you to the great master. No one at the studio will say yes to you and no one will say no. You protest that you have interviewed Bill Clinton and Nelson Mandela with less fuss and bother, and Norma reminds you that they’re just politicians and that Avedon is an artist. Finally, Norma says the visionary will speak to you, but that you will “just see what he’s like” and can’t use a tape recorder or a notebook or quote directly from your conversation. Worn down, you accede. The next day there’s a perfectly normal-sounding, affable message on your machine (which, since he put it on tape, you feel you can probably quote). “Hi, it’s Dick Avedon. Why don’t you come over for breakfast on Saturday around 8:30?”

In the clear light of a beautiful Saturday morning, you go up to Avedon’s house/studio in the 70s near the East River. You ring the doorbell, and down comes Dick, his hair all standing on end, delighted to see you, altogether friendly, apologetic about not being in the best of moods, genial and gracious and surprisingly sexy despite his 72 years. You sit in the conservatory at the back of the house, and talk as if you were old friends. Avedon tells stories, laughs, makes you laugh. You tell him about different places you’ve seen his work, and he talks about his pictures as though he had taken them just a second ago. In his gestures, they come back to life: the subjects, the context, and he himself as he was the day he took whatever photo you’re discussing, always, in his anecdotes, a bit lost and a bit naïve and a bit inept. Like a modest Don Juan, he tells you almost ruefully how he has seduced everyone — Marilyn Monroe, a drifter, a madwoman in the asylum, the model Veruschka, his own father — and the stories are at once poignant and menacing. They are also their own mode of seduction.

There’s a lot of breakfast. You are given smoked salmon, raspberries, fresh orange juice. He cannot refill your plate and glass often enough. He tells you how he used to care about what people wrote about him and now he doesn’t care at all, in such a way that you understand he cares very much. He tells you that without a camera he can’t look at people as he wants to, that it would be too disconcerting. You tell him that he is welcome to look at you any way he wants, and he stares for two long minutes as if to clue you in to his own intensity, then lets you go. He talks about being married to his work, as if you didn’t know that already. He tells you about the show in Milan, how record-breaking crowds came to see it, how it was installed in a decaying building where you could really see the photos, and he finds installation shots of Milan and walks you through the exhibition. He defends and dismisses the fashion work (which is strikingly absent from his retrospective). Literary references come up and he takes you back to the bedroom, lined with bookshelves, and searches for what he is quoting. He is reading six books at once. He is saying six things at once. He is thinking six things at once, but he’s not going to tell you what they are.

No notebooks, no tape recorders. It’s not quite an interview and it’s not quite a conversation, and the whole thing has about it a certain quality of alarming artifice, because although you think that you are interrogating Avedon, it soon becomes apparent that he is interrogating you, that he is figuring out more from your questions and your face than you are figuring out from his invariably charming answers. At some point, he has decided not to dismiss you out-of-hand, so the only other option is to engage totally. You may think that Avedon’s techniques are often manipulative and somewhat unkind, but by the end of an hour his seduction has worked. No matter how controlling you are, you have lost control here. Avedon is running the show. He looks at you and you feel that he sees you, but if you try to find out what he is seeing, you see only yourself reflected back in the pupil of his eye. You can blink if you want to, but he is the pupil of your eye also, and you feel that he stays there even when you are looking down at the table or across the room at his work. The stronger you make your façade against him, the more information he takes from it. It’s as though you are something cut in half, and he is counting the rings of that surface of the interior. To talk to someone who can pay that much attention to you is perfectly terrifying and also utterly flattering, and after an hour’s resistance, your ego expands into it, and Avedon has won, without even the cumbersome technicality of a camera. “Did Avedon take your picture?” someone asked me after the interview. “He didn’t need to,” I said.

Richard Avedon: Evidence 1944-1994, from 23 March to 11 June at the National Portrait Gallery, London WC2.