A local exhibition of famed photographer Richard Avedon's work captures his affinity for truth to power and social justice issues.
Some early visitors to the new show at the National Museum of American Jewish History last week were treated to a delicious example of life imitating art. While perusing the photographs mounted for “Richard Avedon: Family Affairs,” they had to share the museum’s fifth-floor gallery space with a crew shooting a cable television commercial promoting the show.
To have a commercial shot in a museum for a show about historical photographs shot by a man best known for his commercial work was an apt metaphor for an exhibition dedicated to the late Avedon, who, until his death in 2004, was best known for his fashion photography. This, despite his extensive catalog of work dedicated to documenting substantive issues in American history, from the politicians and cultural icons hung on the walls of the museum to the people involved in social justice movements like civil rights and ending the Vietnam War.
One of the 20th century’s most influential photographers — mentioned in the same breath as others on the era’s roster of Jewish photographers like Diane Arbus, Annie Liebovitz, Man Ray, WeeGee, Alfred Eisenstadt and many more — Avedon’s work graced the covers and pages of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar. He was the first staff photographer at The New Yorker, and he even directed commercials and music videos, including the then-scandalous Calvin Klein TV spots featuring a 15-year-old Brooke Shields declaring that nothing got between her and her jeans.
The exhibition features images from “The Family,” Avedon’s series for Rolling Stone in advance of the 1976 presidential election that focused on the narrow corridors of power, as well as the landmark mural-sized photos of Beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his family. Avedon’s gift for capturing both people and the inner lives percolating below their visages was just as effective on Jimmy Carter and Cesar Chavez as it was on Natassja Kinski and Audrey Hepburn. (Hepburn, who was Avedon’s muse in the 1950s and ’60s, wound up taking their relationship to the big screen, in a sense: she co-starred as a model with Fred Astaire, who played “Dick Avery,” a fashion photographer based on Avedon, in the 1957 film, Funny Face.)
The photographer’s affinity for photographing truth to power and social justice issues is a direct result of his Jewish upbringing in New York City, where he was born in 1923 to a Russian immigrant father and an American mother who was born to immigrants, asserts Josh Perlman, the museum’s chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections.
One of the first photographs in the show is a group shot of a 12-year-old Avedon with the rest of the members of the New York Young Men’s Hebrew Association Camera Club in 1935; another is a self-portrait he took with his high school newspaper co-worker, the future author James Baldwin.
“Many people don’t realize he was Jewish, but he has that connection to the Jewish experience in a direct way; no doubt, it shaped the choices he made as an artist,” Perelman says.
Avedon found his way through fashion in a familial way: His father owned a dress shop on Fifth Avenue, and his mother’s family owned a dress-manufacturing business. Yet it took a stint as a photographer in the Merchant Marines, followed by classes at the New School, before his ability to reframe fashion spreads revealed itself.
The photographs on display at the museum represent the first exhibition dedicated to Avedon’s work to open in the United States since 2012, and his first Philadelphia show in decades. They are the result of the famously hard-working Avedon’s branching out to cover political figures and social justice issues beginning in the 1960s. In addition to studies of power brokers, he both covered and trained others to photograph the civil rights movement during the decade. He also documented other milestones, from Vietnam protests to the reunification of Berlin after the wall came down.
Captured against Avedon’s signature white background and black borders, the images of potentates are, literally, a walk through the halls of American power in the 1970s. Here are the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Ted Kennedy and Katherine Graham; there is Donald Rumsfeld, George H.W. Bush and Henry Kissinger. Perelman says “The Family” is a perfect fit for the museum.
“Coming from the perspective of a history museum, photography as a documentary medium opens doors to storytelling that are unexpected,” he says. “Avedon allows us to see his subjects as human beings, as individuals. To see all of these portraits together really brings us back to that moment and reminds us of why it was such a complicated and transitional time and how it continues to inform our own time.”
The same could be said of Avedon’s group portraits on display, including smaller studies of Andy Warhol and his Factory compatriots, as well as the Chicago Seven, who led protests at the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago, and the Mission Council, the group responsible for planning the Vietnam War.
Nothing in the show commands attention, both physically and emotionally, quite like the Ginsberg photos, though. Measuring 8 feet tall and 20 feet wide, this 1970 moment taken from a family celebration of the publication of a book of poetry by Ginsberg’s father stares you down and commands your scrutiny of everything from the family members’ body language to the range of gazes, from accusatory to accepting, being leveled at the camera.
“I love the Ginsberg mural for two reasons,” Perelman opines. “No. 1, it is a photographic masterpiece — the staging of the individuals and the excellence of the printing — remember that this was printed in 1970. To see something of that size today is less unusual because of digital printing, but to do that back then was nearly unheard of. In addition, it tells a story about postwar American Jewish life in a remarkable and unexpected way. There is a story in the image about generational dissonance, that subtext of tension — but there is a warmth and lovingness to the family.”
In a nod to the dramatic evolution of photography into a self-referential medium dominated by smartphone-enabled self-portraits, Perelman and his staff have placed a photo booth at the end of the exhibition. In homage to Avedon, the selfies are taken against a white background and come out with black borders. They can be taken home as a souvenir, posted on the museum walls or uploaded to Instagram and Facebook. It is an inspired way to not only commemorate the viewing experience, but to provide the viewer’s own interpretation of just what a portrait should reveal — and what it shouldn’t. As Avedon himself once said in one of his most oft-repeated quotes, “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.”