Ready to Wear. Try It on for Size

Since his death in 2004, it has only become clearer how extraordinary an artist Richard Avedon was, how completely he remade the art of photography through the force and purity of his vision. He was also one of the most unpredictable of American artists, especially considering the stature he’d attained by the 1960s. People who reach the heights he did often keep doing what’s made them an unmistakable presence in their field. Avedon, however, was bent on changing tracks whenever possible, then taking as many risks as necessary.

At the height of a pioneering and lucrative foray into fashion photography, when he and Irving Penn were setting the standard for the industry, as well as capturing some of its most indelible images, he stopped and began doing a series of portraits that were so shocking in their honesty that they made the arts community and critics rethink everything they ever thought about him.

The motivation for the sudden detours he took throughout his long career came, I would argue, from his sense of not being taken seriously by the critical establishment, mostly due to the time he spent in the realm of haute couture. But there also seems to have been a personal distrust of his early work, even a sense of revulsion over how comfortable, materially, it had made him; like so many other artists, Avedon seemed to fear that money and success had taken him far from the sources of truth — and he was determined to get back to them. With these new portraits, he seemed to be saying that he would now ignore all beauty, and instead enthrone ever wrinkle and wart.

In these portraits — some of which are sprinkled throughout Woman in the Mirror, the magnificent compilation recently brought out by the estimable art publisher Abrams — his camera was wielded from more merciless angles than the technique he applied when toiling in the province of beauty. But there is a seamless link between the two realms, and this oversized beauty of a book makes that clear.

In both terrains, Avedon never flinched. The deep psychological penetration evinced in the portraits may not have been so necessary a quality in the world of long gowns and high style, but the eye for composition and framing — invaluable components of his penetrating gaze — is strikingly at work in both arenas.

And it is also apparent that throughout his career, Avedon drew from the world of fine art, especially the great masters, then reconfigured a pose or a patch of shading into something unmistakably modern. The portraits are still shocking, many of them, especially when they bump up against shots of models like Suzy Parker or Penelope Tree. And, though he may have come to think less of his fashion photography, Avedon’s creativity in these photos is still as fresh as the day he first brought those images to light.



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