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Performance Pieces

December 18, 2008 By:
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Richard Avedon snapping a shot of actress Sophia Loren

Shortly after the great photographer Richard Avedon died in 2004, New York magazine ran one of the most intriguing and resonant magazine articles I'd ever run across -- a six-page photo spread, accompanied by just a hint of text, depicting Avedon's Upper East Side apartment.

Above Avedon's famous studio, there was a generous living space arrayed with photographs, art, furniture and books. The various rooms and all that populated them made up what magazine writer Wendy Goodman called "an exercise in brilliant juxtapositions." The numerous arrangements of possessions and memorabilia, so perfectly captured in Andrew Moore's nine, intense color photos, acted like Rorschachs that somehow both explained Avedon's interests and passions, and made his accomplishment more astonishing and mysterious, as all great art inevitably must be.

Goodman noted that Avedon used his apartment walls as tackboards, "constantly pinning new things up. 'Dick really wanted a backdrop,' says architect Harris Feinn, [who did the redesign of the original carriage house], 'not architecture that dominated the space visually.' "

For example, on a wall in the living room hung an old press card, along with the stub from a performance from the summertime Shakespeare in the Park Festival and a photo of Avedon, shown on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, taken during one of the photographer's shows there. The wall on the opposite side of the room was dominated by a large photo from Avedon's series called "In the American West," showing a hard-bitten fellow in overalls, his face and body splattered with oil and dirt.

That same side of the room also exhibited photos of Virginia Woolf and Anton Chekhov, as well as several small, brightly colored kites, and loads of fascinating books on the shelves and also piled on the floor -- monographs, mostly, on photographers and artists such as Cézanne, Brancusi, Jacques-Henri Lartigue, Christian Berard, Josef Albers and Francis Bacon.

As Goodman wrote in the New York article: "The apartment was a series of still-lifes ... that almost always had a certain functionality: stacks of books he wanted to consult, a set of magnifying glasses. There was nothing overtly decorative about the arrangements. And the photographs of his own that Avedon put up tended not to be his beautiful fashion shots, but tougher portraits ....

"But the house also had a sense of humor. Peering out from the plants in the terrace garden by the kitchen is Avedon's glass-covered portrait of Charlie Chaplin, taken on the eve of the actor's flight from America. It's another unexpected yet perfectly logical juxtaposition -- the picture goes beautifully with the bird-feeder."

This article was such a gift to those who love Avedon's work, most especially because it was like an invitation to look inside and get an inkling of his interior life, of how his mind worked. I've said all this, because a new compilation of Avedon's photographs, called simply Performance, and published by the great art-book publisher Abrams, gives one the same sense of being allowed to peer into the mind of a great creative artist. Again, it seems that the juxtapositions are what provide keys to the photographer's methodology and his passions.

There's a double meaning to the title. All of the people captured in these pages are performers, from icons like Judy Garland, Sophia Loren and Audrey Hepburn to a more recent array of rock stars, like Prince and Björk. (The "cast" is truly international in scope and represents a mass of different media types.)

But, in addition to people who perform for a living, we also see Avedon at certain moments performing as well, standing above his Rolleiflex ready to capture his subjects who sit before him, say, at a makeup mirror, preparing to perform. As was the case with the photos of Avedon's apartment, there are multiple meanings suggested by the title, and layers and layers of associations summed up by this massive compilation.

In addition to the photos are essays and comments by John Lahr, Mike Nichols, Andre Gregory, Mitsuko Uchida and Twyla Tharp, all of them performers in one medium or another. The concept for the book is attributed to Avedon and Norma Stevens, and the design was done by Yolanda Cuomo.

In this grand parade of photos, reproduced on a correspondingly grand scale, we see the greats of Hollywood right next to European street entertainers, as well as other accomplished people whose faces were never that well-known, like Italian film director Luchino Visconti and society maven Elsa Maxwell.

Some of the photos are determinedly posed; others have an improvisatory quality to them. There is a magnificent stillness about some, and the greatest sense of movement and energy about others. One of the points in this immensely rich collection is not just to force us to consider the juxtapositions, but also to look at all the beauty and creativity captured throughout a long and varied photographic career -- and remember that one man did it all.

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