Richard Avedon. Photographs 1946-2004
1 July – 28 September 2008

“A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” (Richard Avedon)

Born on May 15, 1923 in New York, the son of a Jewish Russian family, Richard Avedon is one of the very rare artists to have leapt from being a “non-serious” photographer to being a “serious” one, and it is as such that he made his mark. The most prestigious institutions have organized retrospectives in his honor since the 1960s but these shows have often focused on fashion as a central theme.
The exhibition "Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004" takes a look at his career as a whole. Some two hundred and fifty photographs are presented to this end, taking us from the glamour of Paris fashion in the 1950s to celebrity portraits – writers, actors, musicians and artists – to portraits of unknown faces. The exhibition travels here from Humlebæk and Milan, and in Paris, it has been complemented by a large selection of his photographs from his In the American West series, a key body of work in Avedon’s artistic development.
Regardless of the quantity or the era of all of these images, there is one common denominator: the portrait. Whether through reportage, snapshots or fashion photographs, Avedon creates portraits – moments from a performance, captured with subtlety by the lens and reflecting an empathy, a responsibility he shared with his subjects. Rather than represent an arbitrary point of view, Avedon strived to unveil various facets. Although a photograph is “faithful” by nature, he proves that a portrait can show more than simple superficial reality.


At the age of 19, Avedon enlisted in the Merchant Marine where, for two years, he took ID photographs of crew members. Immediately after, he began working as an advertising photographer for a department store. He was quickly noticed by the legendary Alexey Brodovitch, who was at that time the artistic director of the fashion magazine Harper’s Bazaar. In 1946, Avedon opened his own studio and worked for different magazines, notably Life and Harper’s Bazaar, for which he soon became head photographer – a position he kept until 1966, when he moved to Vogue. His lively and passionate eye transformed fashion photography from something monotonous and stiff to something dynamic and entirely innovative for its times.
In 1946, Avedon traveled for the first time to Paris – the fashion city par excellence. Magazines at the time were interested in perpetuating prewar glamour; models looked like Art Deco statues – simple “coatstands” on which “creations” were hung. Inspired by Martin Munkacsi, Avedon gave life and movement to these soulless statues – and, consequently, to the photographic experience itself. Avedon wasn’t only photographing posing models, he was creating images.


In Andy Warhol and members of The Factory (1969), we see a sloppy-looking group of people – in different states of undress – that the photographer seems to have observed and then captured at the right moment. Upon closer examination, however, we see an entirely different reality. This is in fact a complex tableau, with Avedon in control of its every detail. His photograph is staged and explores a performative aesthetic that underlies the improvisational method with hyper-professional manipulation and control.
Andy Warhol’s Factory represented the quintessence of the sexual and artistic revolution of the late 1960s, and for Avedon New York and its cultural milieu became an inexhaustible source of inspiration. Taking portraits of personalities accustomed to playing a role were the great challenge for him. Although very early on he became the (very well paid) photographer of high society, he never sought to please – quite the opposite. Non-public performers like visual artists, composers, and writers were also exposed to his penetrating eye that captured several sides of a same being, bringing them to the fore at once in a single and unique portrait. The white background purifies the composition: nothing remains but the clinical and psychological interpretation of the complex creature that is every human being – an interpretation that Avedon suggested along with the “model.”
Among the most revealing images that draw on this approach are the portraits of his father taken between 1969 and 1973, a period when he was being devoured by cancer. The series never pretends to forever seize the personality of a beloved relative, but is rather a memento mori that, through both tenderness and ruthlessness, represents the role Avedon assigned to photography: to record the surface of things or, one could also say, the imprint of survival.


“It isn’t about the West, I could have done them anywhere in the world. The portraits are about people – all my work is – forget the West.”
Richard Avedon

Exploring the “depth of the surface,” Avedon’s portraits owe their intensity not to a dislocation between “true” and “false,” between authenticity and pretence, but to the fundamental perplexity of the model with regard to the image he has of or that he offers of himself. This is demonstrated in the In the American West series, the fruit of a commission from the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. Between 1979 and 1984, Avedon traveled across the western part of the United States, which was suffering from the effects of a serious economic recession. Along the way, he focused his attention on very specific places: ranches, coal mines, cattle fairs, slaughter houses, truck stops, for example. He took portraits of drifters, farmers, minors, waitresses, etc., cutting them out of the environment that is normally their own.
The idea was to bring outsiders and the disadvantaged into the tradition of the portrait, to place the weak where the strong are usually represented. To do so, Avedon used the same approach he did for celebrities: the studio, the neutral background and lighting – that is, the elements of his immediately recognizable style. But, the In the American West photographs were taken in an outdoor studio and models stood in front of a simple piece of white paper hung on the side of a truck.
What resulted were uncompromising images in which Avedon was able to depict the daily struggle to survive and the decline of a system of values traditionally associated with the American West. Humane and deeply sober records, these life-size portraits of anonymous Americans from the most underprivileged strata of society immediately became classics in the history of photography.