Monday, July 7, 2008

Avedon at Jeu de Paume

The re-examination of commercial and fashion photography seems to be in full flower. Curators are racing to find new philosophical feet on which to prop up the careers of various commercial artists. I don't know whether museums and galleries feel that there's a dearth of bankable new exhibition ideas, whether they honestly believe that these are artists on the scale of the best the field has to offer, or perhaps curators are intrigued by the challenge of reformatting how we perceive commercial work with a novel or creative argument. In any case, I remain unconvinced.

This post was motivated after seeing the Richard Avedon show currently on view at Jeu de Paume in Paris. It seems that Mr. Avedon - like his colleagues Irving Penn and Annie Liebowitz - has already been canonized by large-scale shows at the most prestigious museums. These shows incite my cynicism and skepticism. I am not saying that Mr. Avedon and his peers are without talent, craft, or inspiration. They have all of that. They are VERY professional. Do they create a personal, recognizable style? Yes, and I have tremendous respect for how hard this is. Are these photographs that should be seen and judged on their own merits outside of the pages of magazines and books? Yes, absolutely. But are these artists our generation's August Sander, Julia Margaret Cameron, Diane Arbus, Bill Brandt, or Paul Strand? In other words, are these artists the defining portrait photographers of our time? I think not. I think a better comparison is that they are our generation's Nadar, Disderi, Laurent, or George Hurrell. But, as we've seen, major museums mostly don't offer one man, blockbuster shows of this work. Why does Mr. Avedon get special treatment?

Readers of past posts of mine will remember my enthusiasm for Bill Brandt's show in Houston. Even though I had seen a number of shows devoted to Brandt, even though I had seen dozens of his works in galleries and auction previews, my estimation of his genius was undiminished. In fact, to my surprise, even though I already regarded him as one of the best photographers ever, my sense of his genius was ever expanded. But not all artists can survive the scrutiny of seeing so much of their work at one time. When I saw the Irving Penn show at the Morgan Museum this past year, I found myself thinking less of this artist when confronted by so much of his portrait work in one place. The most exciting and engaging part of the show was tracing the discovery of a signature style. These early creative attempts had true inspiration and the sense of searching for something beyond the image. But then, once the recognizable style is set, I see 30 years of repetition using a template that is commercially approved and utile no matter who is in front of the camera. The interest lies solely in seeing a recognizable visage. Do we care anymore who the subjects are of J-M Cameron? Not so much, because the pictures speak so eloquently on their own.

But Richard Avedon comes off much worse in this show than my thoughts on Irving Penn. Both artists created projects outside of commercial portraiture, but it's Mr. Penn's that have some real weight. His still lifes have real power which don't seem to be extensions of his magazine assignments. By contrast, "In the American West" seems to be a fashion shoot without models. It strikes me as the conceit of a photographer unfettered by critics or finances trying to do something "artistic". While not as bad as the dismal attempts by Karl Lagerfeld to make serious work, it is still far short of the claims of importance by the curators and, most loudly, by the artist himself. Just as in the Penn show, we see the development of a nascent style, watch it grow in a full-fledged device, and watch as it is used for decades without question and without asking much from the viewer. Once the memory has faded of the identity of the sitters in these photos, will we care about these pictures?

A NYC dealer for whom I have much respect confided to me that he has less and less interest in photographers who make "cruel" photographs; pictures that have no sympathy or empathy for the sitter. Diane Arbus weathered this accusation, but I think she comes out on the positive side of the argument. She lived with her subjects, enjoyed them, endeavored to show their humanity no matter how freakish or marginalized they were by society. Mr. Avedon seems to delight in showing his subjects at their worst. He reveled in his control over how the sitter would appear, and yet seemed utterly capricious in how bad he could make that person look. He claims that he is showing some "true" side of the subject that other photographs have not limned. Yet this "truth" is almost always grim, sad, and unflattering. Didn't any of the sitters have an unknown sense of humor, sense of empathy, or inner beauty that had formerly been unrevealed? No, I think Mr. Avedon betrays a fashion world bitchiness in these photos using his celebrity-photographer status to throw tomatoes at his fellow celebrities. In the many self-portraits, he had the opportunity to show us more of his "true" nature. I don't see much truth there. He is invariably portrayed as a lion-maned icon of masculinity and beauty. He claimed to fascinated by age and aging. This was manifested in his portraits of his dying father as well as many photos of aging celebrities. Did this artistic searching extend to himself? No. I would be much more impressed if he had had the courage to also chronicle his own decline. Again, claims about the work are not matched by what is in the work.

I'm reminded of the recent show of Rosalind Soloman. Turning the camera on herself, she confronts her own aging and mortality with a forthrightness that lifts the work above a mere self-portrait. Suddenly the work is about mortality and aging itself, not just her mortality. It is about more than just the image. We see that she is searching for something and asking questions. Does she find herself beautiful? Faded? Angry? Wistful? Content? We don't know, but the work inspires these questions. We search for the answers because the pictures aren't easy. And look at the variety. Not just portraits or self-portraits, or documentary....a whole world shown in her work. She doesn't need a PR team and a press conference to convince us she's looking for meaning. It's in the work. Rosalind Solomon has never had a one woman show at Jeu de Paume, yet her work shows a sense of craft, honesty and imagination that leaves Mr. Avedon's in the very distant dust.

Many older celebrities were not lucky enough to benefit from the goodwill of Mr. Avedon. Truman Capote, Dorothy Parker, Oscar Levant, and others all got portraits that would emphasize unattractive features. His friend Andre Gregory certainly has the materials in his face to be the recipient of a similar treatment, yet he is shown with dignity and grace. I think this again shows a crevasse between the artistic claims and what we see. As arresting and shocking as the Levant and Parker photos can be, I am mistrustful of the honesty behind the photos because of this gap between What I'm told I'm looking at and what I see. Mr. Avedon shows his hand. This is the National Enquirer overlayed with the gloss and glitz of Vogue. Like the Enquirer, he trades on our desire to see celebrities brought low while he hides this fact behind a facade of artistic intent and polished photographic craft. The signature all-white background claims to be neutral, something to focus all of our attention on the sitter, yet Mr. Avedon is anything but neutral. I think he hides behind a commercially easy visual device and then claims that he is revealing a special truth. There is more truth in the headline, "Britney Back In Rehab".

Fashion and advertising photography always need to bring us something new. Often, they do this by seeking to shock or surprise. Art, too, sometimes shocks and surprises. Yet the character of the two should not be confused. Fashion shocks with a bared breast in a Prada ad; Brad Pitt as jedermann in a Steve Weber campaign. Art shocks by changing the way we see the world. Once we have seen what the artist shows us, we cannot see the same thing the same way again; the world is changed. A show of shocking art leaves me with a taste for more. I am hungry to know more, see more, learn more. A show of shocking fashion work makes me want to see less. Much less. After I saw the Bill Brandt show in Houston, I went to the library, I asked questions of knowledgeable dealers, I bought books. I was hungry for a meal that I would be happy to have go on and on. After the Avedon show, I felt I had gorged on a meal of french fries. The kind of meal that leaves you resolved to never eat like that again, a meal that provides no real nutrition. In contrast to my reaction to the Brandt show, my curiosity was more than sated. I would be happy to not see this work for a long time. Richard Avedon has certainly taken some great photographs. It may be possible to take a single great photo by accident, but it's not possible to take four great photos by accident. The photo of the former slave, Andy Warhol, and some of the early fashion work come to mind when I think of his truly standout work. But as good as these photos are, less is more. When seen in a grand, solo show, the work is diminished not augmented in my mind. Let's preserve the legacy of these wonderful commercial photographers by keeping them in a measured historical perspective without hype or self-aggrandizement. Then the work will stand without any help at all from any of us.

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