Avedon and Julian Bond

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Richard Avedon, Julian Bond and members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, Atlanta, Georgia, March 23, 1963

The exhibition Richard Avedon People closes this weekend at the Ian Potter Museum so you’re running out of time. This is the first Avedon show in Australia.

One of my students was surprised at how how involved Avedon was in progressive politics in the 1960s, a turbulent decade in the US. He photographed everyone on the left, including Civil Rights leader Julian Bond.

This is a remarkable photograph, presenting the leader of the renowned Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee as part of a seemingly endless and unstoppable column. He is the leader but an equal amongst his comrades. Avedon achieves this with the careful placement of individuals, male/female, young/older, light-skinned/dark-skinned. It’s a representative sample of a community.

He does it also with the selective focus of the shallow depth-of-field. A large lens aperture progressively blurs those further away from the main figure, but enfolds them in the same tonal shape. The blur, together with their calm expressions, quietens the picture, illustrating the nonviolent part of the group’s title. There was another shot taken at the same time but it’s much less effective in making this point.

In his last year, at the age of 81, Avedon photographed Bond again. Now a distinguished American with decades as a senator, Bond is in the centre of the composition and fills the frame. It’s made in Avedon’s classic formal style, the black film-edge framing and locking the subject, the one-to-one encounter giving us the full force of two remarkable people.

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Richard Avedon, Julian Bond, 2004

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Neville Brand’s eye

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Frame still from Kansas City Confidential

Look at the pinpoint focus in this shot from the 1952 movie Kansas City Confidential. An over ripe crime melodrama, it features some of the most startling closeups I’ve seen.

The tough guy actor Neville Brand is staring down his opponent while Lee van Cleef looks on. What’s unique is that cinematographer George E. Diskant has focussed on only one of Brand’s eyes, while the near and far is out of focus. It was a fairly low budget movie so probably there was no time or equipment to get more depth-of-field. He has focussed on the better lit short side of the face, intensifying the cold stare.

Screen actors have to act from their marks, a point in space which the camera has been focussed on. With depth-of-field of about one inch, Brand must have had good body control and steady nerves. Cinema is about faces.

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