«My portraits do not go beyond the surface. I have faith in it. A good surface is full of elements». – R.A.
by Marianina Patsa
Richard Avedon (1923-2004) was not just a photographer, but a multifaceted innovator of his art. His father, Jacob, owned a luxury women’s clothing store on New York’s 5th Avenue. And his mother, Anna, instilled in him a love for the arts from an early age. That’s how Richard Avedon found himself photographing fashion. His shots, black and white and abstract, brought an unprecedented humanistic quality to photography. He was one of the pioneers in the realization that a model is not in front of the lens to walk around like an haute couture hanger. He saw that he was not there to sell just a product, but an overall image, a fantasy that everyone would want to live. But his mastery of portraits was not only about his technical ability and his aesthetics. It mainly had to do with the ability to create a relationship of trust and intimacy with the photographed, so that they trust him. Sometimes, in fact, he directly provoked their reactions, leading the conversation to uncomfortable topics or asking them psychologically penetrating questions. Thus, being open to him became an art form in itself. The now legendary 1957 portrait in which Marilyn Monroe is captured in her sequins, motionless, without her bright smile, without her quirks, with an introspective expression and a universal indifference to whether she is in front of the camera or not, is typical of her of the property. He himself waited hours for this shot. When the night wore on and the dancing, the flirting, and the champagne were over, Monroe sat quietly in a corner like a little girl, expressionless on her face. Then Avedon walked in front of her with the camera and, taking her permission with his eyes, captured the moment. And thus, Avedon’s profoundly honest and moving portraits were instrumental in reshaping photography as an expressive art form. Avedon is deeply anthropocentric, and even in fashion editorials, faces take up a large part of the composition. His close-ups not only provide detail, including physical imperfections but also make the viewer feel like they are invading the director’s private space. He prefers a white background, no frame, and no “soft” lights. And of course, black and white film. Because “color creates an unwanted distraction from the essential.” But the movement is also something that interests him. He wants to keep his eyes open and anticipate the “after” because he knows that if he is even a second late, he will miss the moment. Somehow, in 1967 he captures top model Veruschka, dressed in haute couture, twirling on ballerina shoes. The image stands in stark contrast to the polished, still images of the era. Her face is almost invisible, while the body “breaks” into unnatural lines. Her dress also swirls, creating with its exuberant fabric a form that looks like a flower bulb about to bloom. Who said fashion can’t be spontaneous? And why should one merely see clothes and not caress his soul with a playful dream? The truth in Avedon’s shots seems revelatory. But he made sure to leave a hint of mystery about it and the opportunity for the viewer to decide for themselves, saying: “All the photos are accurate. None of them are the truth.”
Photo by Gideon Lewin