My wife and I just managed to make it to the brilliant exhibition Avedon’s America at the Henie Onstad Kunstsenter. We had been talking about going ever since it was announced, but life does have a tendency to get in the way. Especially with kids. Now, just days before they start packing it up, we finally had the chance to go.
I’ve been an Avedon fan ever since I got into photography. Especially of his portrait work, which I think is at the same level as my all time favorite, Irving Penn. Not having had the chance to see these prints in person before, I was super excited. And I wasn’t let down.
Needless to say, the quality of the prints was top notch. Period. That was, however, expected. But the beautiful silver gelatin prints, the technical mastery and all of that, just played a supporting role. What really blew me away, was the extreme emotional quality of Avedon’s work. And that is what I believe is at the heart of great photography – especially now in today’s (over)saturated landscape.
For the most part, the portraits included in the exhibition carried an underlying melancholy, or dare I say – sadness. You can of course sense this when flipping through a photo book, but standing in front of these prints, the largest more than a meter tall, it hits you. You feel it. In your bones.
Take his famous portrait of Marilyn Monroe – the most obvious example. A fantastic expression of the superstar lost in her own world – introverted, sad. A portrait of a vulnerable and fragile soul, much more fitting to the image we have of her today, when we know what we know, than what the contemporary image of her must have been.
Another superb example is the portrait of Chet Baker, made in the 80s. His sad eyes, wrapped in wrinkles. A truly moving testimony of life long struggle with addiction and the sneaking realization of what could have been had he just...
And then there's the famous portrait of a laughing Janis Joplin, a year or so before her death. The laughing artist in heart-breaking inner turmoil. Her smile is there, but her hands reveal the substances intoxicating her body. The way she holds them for that split second Avedon captures just says so much.
The true sadness, however, once again comes from the eyes. Beneath her glossy gaze of intoxication, the anxiety is so deep and so clear, I can almost feel her desperate attempts at avoiding my piercing stare. The stare of all the spectators peering at her – from outside the warm insulation of heroin.
You see, this is all about feeling in photography. When such qualities are found, minor differences in print quality, the equipment or technique used, all take the back seat. It's irrelevant. Everything becomes about invoking a feeling. And in my view, this is the most important effect a photo can have.
I would love to have sat quietly in a corner of the room during one of these shoots. Just observing his people skills, because they must have been phenomenal. But equally important is the timing of the shots. As a portrait photographer, you must be able to recognize these brief in-between moments. To be ready, and to capture the minor expressions between the series of masks. To expose the film at exactly that 1/125th of a second the guard comes down, making an opening for a truer portrait of the human in front of the lens. And in this art, no-one comes close to Richard Avedon.