Richard Avedon, James Baldwin, writer, Harlem, New York 1945
The exhibition Richard Avedon People at the Ian Potter Museum of Art is, incredibly, the first exhibition of Avedon’s work in Australia. It was curated by our National Portrait Gallery from the collection of The Richard Avedon Foundation, New York.
Avedon set up the Foundation before he died to preserve and control his life’s work, a vast collection. I visited it recently with students and was shown many treasures from the collection. It holds work prints, retouched originals and tear sheets and as well as exhibition prints from all his projects. One room stored 50,000 negatives (he destroyed many others) and another room held his enlarger (which I touched!).
Avedon was the leading postwar American fashion and portrait photographer, along with Irving Penn, working from the 1940s until his death in 2004. He was prolific and varied in his projects, doing street photography, high fashion, commisioned portraiture and publishing ventures. He was a people photographer, there are no still-lifes or landscapes. His portraits of political and cultural figures are an essential part of the record of the times and many of them are in this exhibition.
Richard Avedon People pays close attention to the dynamic relationship between the photographer and his sitters and focuses on Avedon’s portraits across social strata, particularly his interest in counter-culture. At the core of his artistic work was a profound concern with the emotional and social freedom of the individual in society.
Avedon’s signature style was cool black & white imagery of beautiful and interesting people set against white backgrounds. He worked better in black & white than in colour. The starkness of his pictures creates an electric intensity which is well displayed in the Ian Potter show. He printed very large at times, the giant portraits on show have a discrete line where two prints have been joined together – he wanted the pictures bigger than the available paper.
‘My photographs don’t go below the surface. They don’t go below anything. They’re readings of what’s on the surface. I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues.’
The exhibition is at the Ian Potter Museum of Art, Swanston St Carlton, and runs until March 15.
Richard Avedon, Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955