Every photograph is accurate. None of them is the truth. -
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
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
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
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
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].
|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.
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
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]
- Avedon, Richard, "Henry Kissinger's Portrait"(http://www.richardavedon.com/interviews/index.html)
- Avedon, Richard, "Unas palabras sobre el retrado" [Some thoughts on the portrait], Luna Córnea (Mexico), no. 3, 1993, pp. 6-7, 3 illus.
- Richard Avedon, photographer(http://www.temple.edu/photo/photographers/avedon/Avedon.html)
- Avedon, Richard, "Henry Kissinger's Portrait" (http://www.richardavedon.com/interviews/index.html)
- Barthes, Roland, "Avedon," Photo, January 1977
- Hamilton, Peter, "Serious Face," British Journal of Photography (U.K.), vol. 142, no. 7019, 5 April 1995, pp. 12-15, 6 illus.
- Indepth Arts News: "Richard Avedon: Portraits" absolutearts.com(http://www.absolutearts.com/artsnews/2002/09/25/30321.html)
- Kimball, Roger, "Notes on the ethics of seeing," Modern Painters (U.K.), vol. 7, no. 2, Summer 1994, pp. 36-8, 4 illus. (2 color)
- Kozloff, Max, "Through Eastern Eyes," Art in America (U.S.A.), vol. 75, no. 1, Jan. 1987, pp. 90-7, 8 illus.
- Leo, Vince, "Listening to Avedon," Afterimage (U.S.A.), vol. 23, no. 2, Sept.-Oct. 1995, pp. 10, 1 illus.
- Thijsen, Mirelle, "Richard Avedon: evidence 1944-1994," Katalog (Denmark), vol. 7, no. 3, March 1995, pp. 44-8, 6 illus.
- Thompson, Mildred, "Interview," Art Papers (U.S.A.), vol. 11, no. 6, Nov.-Dec. 1987, pp. 35-7, 2 illus
- Washington, George, statement to officers at Newburgh, NY, March 15, 1783