Avedon in Paris (a review and preview)
Avedon in Paris (a review and preview)
My wife and I recently took advantage of a required trip back to the UK to spend a few days in Paris. Aside from a dollar that sucked and the 100% smoking rate of Parisians the trip was wonderful and one of the highlights of our trip was the opportunity to see the Richard Avedon retrospective at the Jeu de Paume more than a year before it will arrive at SF MoMA.

It is difficult not to lump Richard Avedon in with other successful giants of modern portrait photography; Diane Arbus, Erving Penn, Annie Leibowitz (with whom he shares top billing this summer in Paris). They are the first wave of modern portrait photographers – the first to reject beauty for 'reality' which some critics condemn as 'cruel' photography. More on this later, however, the influence of these rock-stars of portrait photography is impossible to ignore and to pass up the opportunity to see this exhibit would have been spiteful.

Love him or hate him (and all these photographers have something of a polarizing effect on audiences and critics) you have to admit that Avedon's work is impactful especially in the flesh. He was one of the first photographers that pioneered the bigger-is-better philosophy to his prints and so you encounter many of his subjects in this exhibit larger than life size with every pore, blemish and hair high lit. A modest print of Warhol and the Factory crew that we had seen a couple of days before in the “Street and Studio” exhibit at the Tate Modern was interesting but seen 9 meters long its impact and implied gravitas was infinitely greater; I don't know if that makes it a better photo or not – that's a question for a more knowledgeable critic than I.

But I get a head of myself; the exhibit itself was laid out chronologically and is exhaustive. True, you've probably seen most of these pictures before in books and a few of them in other exhibits but you're unlikely to have seen this volume and depth of Avedon's oeuvre as exhibition prints before. In the Jeu de Paume the exhibition filled much of display space of two floors of the building with rooms devoted to specific periods starting with his earlier fashion work and progressing through celebrity portrait work to his common man opus, In the American West, and beyond. It took a good two hours to go through.

The lighting of the prints was top class, a standard I hope SF MoMA will live up to, as was the spacing and pacing. Most of the standard prints are presented in plain white gallery frames with white mats against white walls. Captions and commentary (both in French and English thankfully) are applied directly to the walls themselves as seems to be the modern custom. Overall the effect is conservative but it allows the prints to speak for themselves. The larger prints are displayed mounted on aluminum and they tower over the viewer, especially when you consider Avedon's penchant for cropping the head of his subjects close to the top and in the top 20% of the frame. Half of the larger prints are displayed against black walls as opposed to white – exquisitely lit they glow like black and white windows into another time and place.

Some think that Avedon is over-rated – a charge that seems to be leveled at anyone in the art photography field with a commercial background or achieving great commercial success, both blasphemies Avedon was guilty of. I'll concede that he wasn't the most innovative or intellectual of photographers but this did not lessen my enjoyment of this exhibit. I did not tire of his simple trick of isolating his subjects against the plainest of white backgrounds, of capturing excruciating detail and of printing in dramatic sizes. Once I got away from his celebrity subjects and to the hard working oil men, ranchers, homeless and manual laborers it was hard not to stare and wonder if you were looking deep into someone else's life and soul. Perhaps that isn't the heart and soul of his subjects but instead a grotesque world from the imagination of Avedon himself, it really didn't matter to me; I went away moved and inspired and I personally can ask no more of art.

The exhibit tours other venues in Europe before coming to San Francisco in the Fall of 2009. When it arrives I'm sure it will be a massive hit here as it is the kind of photography and blockbusting exhibit the West Coast loves. I look forward to seeing this exhibit again and, in the meantime, I feel privileged to have had the opportunity to see this preview in Paris.

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Posted on Thursday, 21 August 2008 | Canon 40D, Editorial, ,