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Photographic Portraiture and the Work of Richard Avedon
(Released November 2002)

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Every photograph is accurate. None of them is the truth. - Richard Avedon

Does the camera lie? Why do we sometimes feel that photographs of ourselves do not really look like us? Is photography an objective recording technology? Or is it an art? This essay will consider the changing responses to such questions with special regard to portraits, and will describe the work of the acclaimed portrait photographer Richard Avedon, whose work is currently on exhibition at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.

The History of Photography

The dual nature of photography as a method and an art has existed from its beginnings. It was developed by a professional artist, Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre, who was trained in the production of painstakingly accurate landscapes, portraits, and still lifes. Daguerre sought a method to automate his work through the principle of projected images.

Projected images had long been observed, for example in the inverted view of the outdoors appearing on the wall of a darkened room, cast though a small hole in a curtain. The same principle can also be observed in images of the sun seen in shadows of leafy trees or window blinds, projected as bright disks through gaps. These observations led to the development of the camera obscura, a tool for artists. This device was a box with a lens that projected an image onto the rear of the box, so the artist could trace a geometrically accurate outline to serve as a basis for a painting or drawing. Of course, considerable artistic skill was required to achieve a faithful representation.

In the 1830s Daguerre experimented with light-sensitive materials in place of the tracing paper on his camera obscura. By 1837 he was using copper sheets coated with silver, and found the light would darken the silver, producing not merely an outline but a detailed recreation of the scene. The American "tintypes" were formed on tin instead of copper, and the term became synonymous with a lower quality but more affordable product. The English scientist William Talbot experimented with paper impregnated with silver chloride in 1835; interestingly, Talbot reports being specifically motivated by his lack of artistic skill. Although the fibers in the paper prevented Talbot's method from achieving the detailed resolution of Daguerre's "daguerrotypes," his approach did produce a negative from which many copies of an image could be made by contact printing, and his method became the basis of the modern photographic process.

The initial motivation of the technology was thus to automate the image formation process, removing the need for skilled artistry to capture a scene. Ralph Waldo Emerson praised it as "a Republican style of painting. The artist stands aside, and lets you paint yourself." In practice, the first photographs still required the processing skills of a specialist, but enthusiasts praised the shortcut to an image that bypassed the need for artistic talent and long years of training in art school. The detailed images formed by the daguerrotype method were marvelled over and praised for capturing details that the photographer did not necessarily notice at the time of exposure -- inscriptions on buildings, words on placards, times indicated by clocks -- indeed, more details than even the most scrupulous artist would have been likely to record in a painting. This was a new phenomenon, showing the technology had bypassed not only art school but the agency of human perception in forming an image.

Because of the limited sensitivity of early materials, the most successful subjects were stationary, such as landscapes or buildings, where exposure times of hours could be used. Indeed, any moving objects such as moving vehicles or people were erased or rendered as mysterious ghosts. When applied to portraiture, this technology required great dedication by the subject. Portraits were often taken in the afternoon, when the sun could provide direct illumination of the face, which was sometimes floured to provide greater contrast. The model was required to hold still for an exposure time of many minutes, sometimes assisted by a head clamp. It was not surprising that early photographs showed stiff poses, expressions appearing grim or in rictus, or features grotesquely smeared by a slight movement. Clearly, the technology affected the fidelity of the view.

Reportage or Art?

Photography nonetheless gained a reputation as an objective method of recording reality, rather than an art. There developed the dictum that "the camera does not lie," and the technology was relied upon to provide indisputable records of fact, providing appearances of buildings, objects, and persons in a form that was accepted as legal evidence beyond dispute.

As an ironic byproduct of the belief, the laboriously representational paintings that artists like Daguerre had been trained for were downplayed as poor imitations of photography. Propelled by this criticism, painting developed into other forms, emphasizing scenes drawn from an artist's imagination, views where no camera was available to record, and nonrepresentational forms in new schools of art, such as impressionism and abstract modern art.

But as the technology provided more flexibility, it became clear that photography was much more than an objective method of reportage. Artistic judgment was involved in the selection of subject, viewpoint, framing, and composition. The focal length of the lens could be selected to flatten or extend the perspective, the focus could be adjusted to be sharp throughout or limited to a certain depth of field, and the choice of film, filter, exposure, processing, and printing could all affect the final image.

It is common experience for people to complain that photos do not really look like them, perhaps misled by their view of themselves being based almost wholly on mirror-reversed frontal reflections. But it is true that photographs can capture coincidental alignments, fleeting views, and unexpected configurations. Photography surprised artists by showing the actual arrangement of the legs of a galloping horse, something that had been debated but incorrectly visualized for years.

Beyond inadvertent effects, it is possible to perform deliberate manipulations and retouchings of negatives and images to create special effects. For a photograph to be admitted into legal evidence, courts now require testimony describing how it was taken and swearing that it is a faithful reproduction. With the advent of digital photography and image processing software, alterations can be made at the level of the individual pixels, creating effects that are undetectable even under the finest examination of the image.

The photographer can also manipulate his subject directly, creating unconventional or contrived views. This is especially true in the field of portraiture, where the model can be posed or coached, or react in some other way to the presence of the photographer.

Photography thus grew to be a combination of reportage and art, "a complex meditation on meaning" in the words of the philosopher Roland Barthes [Avedon].

Richard Avedon's Portraiture

Some of the scope available to the photographer as artist can be seen in an examination of the work of Richard Avedon (b. 1923, New York City), one of the best known portrait photographers today. Avedon's images are unmistakable. They are typically frontal views of people, either full body or head, often black and white, and shot against a plain background. The resolution is arresting, with every stitch, hair, and pore visible. The faces stare out from the page with unflinching gazes, showing the frank intensity we normally only observe in our own reflection, inviting the viewer to study another person with an immediacy that could never be experienced in real life without embarrassment. Avedon claims to pay close attention to technical details in his photographs, whether or not these are consciously noticed by the viewer [Thompson]. Roland Barthes saw Avedon's work as providing seven gifts: the truth, character, vocation, beauty, death, past, and promise of his subject [Barthes].

Young Avedon
Young Avedon
Mature Avedon
Mature Avedon
From Richard Avedon,

Avedon's subjects include celebrities, artists, U.S. military personnel, mental patients, murderers and vagrants [Kimball]. Yet even when the figures are well known, their appearances often appear unfamiliar. A 1964 picture of Eisenhower shows a lined face, a man "grown gray in your service" [Washington], a startling contrast to the cheerful face appearing on I Like Ike campaign buttons a decade earlier. A picture of Marilyn Monroe shows a mature and pensive woman looking off to one side of the camera, arms hanging resignedly by her sides, for once not playing to the lens, providing a remarkable vision of the famous beauty off duty and revealing the conscious craft she brought to her image. A picture of the comedian Groucho Marx is unrecognizable; lacking his trademark moustache, eyebrows, glasses, cigar, and leer, he appears as an earnest and tragic aesthete, a personification of Jewish angst. Avedon made a photographic study of his dying father, and reported that after his death the photographs acquired "an independent reality not previously noticed" [Avedon 2]. Such photographs cannot be said to be flattering or even typical views of the subjects, yet they add an extraordinary depth to the appreciation of them as people.

Marilyn Monroe
Marilyn Monroe

Avedon received professional training in photography from the U. S. Merchant Marine, in order to produce identification photographs of sailors [Thijsen]. Avedon also developed his skills photographing his attractive sister, and the biographer Peter Hamilton has explored the possible connection between this and Avedon's concept of the surfaces people construct around themselves [Hamilton]. Avedon himself has preferred to be considered an artist, not merely a fashion photographer of beautiful subjects [Leo].

Avedon freely dismisses the notion that the camera is truthful, asserting "The camera lies all the time." He points out that in real life, family members scream, argue, cry, yet he has never seen a photograph album of people in such moods. He does not seek the role of photographer as objective automaton, but describes interacting with his subject, unabashedly injecting himself into the photograph through the subject's reaction [Leo]. He views his photographs as a record of that interaction, saying "Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is...the human predicament" [Avedon 3]. He says he is afraid of not being able to feel, as he considers this to be the death of a photographer [Thompson].

But Avedon's work, especially a photographic essay "In the American West," has disturbed some critics. Roger Kimball has suggested the bleak images of poor farmers and drifters create an illusion of universal depravity and disillusionment, yet asserts that Avedon's approach is viewed as "an index of authenticity by the art establishment" [Kimball]. Max Kozloff sees a "failure of decency" in the disconcerting frankness of Avedon's images [Kozloff].

Avedon recalls that onetime Secretary of State Henry Kissinger, a man "who knows a lot about manipulation," asked him to "Be kind to me" in producing his portrait. But Avedon reflected that concocting a misleadingly attractive image would be as trivializing and demeaning to the truth as a falsely unflattering one [Avedon]. His philosophy is that objective recording of a subject is a fiction. But his work provides views by which we can build an appreciation of things too complex to be fully captured by a single photograph.

Avedon's work "Richard Avedon: Portraits" is on display at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art, September 26, 1002 - January 5, 2003. The exhibition spans his career, starting in the 1940s. The organizer, Maria Morris Hambourg, notes "Richard Avedon has not only distilled photographic portraiture to its irreducible core, but has also produced an extended meditation on life, death, art, and identity. Laureate of the invisible reflected in physiognomy, Avedon has become our poet of portraiture." [Hambourg]

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