Richard Avedon Exhibit Proves an Organized Masterpiece in SFMOMA’s Cluttered Collections.
By Emily Ryles
The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) is known for its questionable pieces that resemble children’s finger paintings or your grandmother’s knitted sweaters. Many MOMA goers often find themselves regarding these works of art with an “I could do that” attitude. However, this was nowhere near true at MOMA’s newest exhibit of Richard Avedon’s photographs. The late photographer’s portraits of everyone from the Beatles to a Santa Monica beach bum are far from DIY. In fact, many visitors to the museum were perplexed by how complicated, yet simple his portraits were. As oxymoronic as this may sound it is the only to describe Mr. Avedon’s legendary photos and the exhibit San Francisco MOMA has displayed.
An excellent example of his unique style and a highlight of the exhibit is his famous picture of Marilyn Monroe. The actress was photographed millions of times from paparazzi to professionals, and in Richard Avedon’s portrait she is depicted as her typical glamorous and seductive self. Her low cut dress is sparkling with sequins and her hair is effortlessly perfect. Yet, Mr. Avedon captures more than her blonde ringlets and hourglass shape. When looking at the photograph the viewers’ eye goes straight to the distraught look on her face. The look in Miss Monroe’s eyes is a shock from her usual flirty and fun personality and is heart wrenching. It truly is beyond words to describe the infamous actress’ expression except that she seems trapped behind the glass of the frame. One must wonder what Richard Avedon had to do to obtain this look from the seemingly perfect Monroe. It is inarguable that whoever sees this picture in person will agree they could not obtain that look from Marilyn Monroe unless they were Avedon himself. This unique talent of Avedon, spread across all his photos, is reason enough to splurge on the five-dollar ticket to the exhibit.
Not all of Mr. Avedon’s pictures are quite as morbid as the famous Monroe picture. Some display joyous pop stars lazily staring into the camera lens like the famous rendition of Janis Joplin. Others are clipped from fashion spreads from Harper’s Bazaar dating back to the 1950’s and 60’s. One of the favorite magazine clippings displayed at the exhibit is a psychedelic spread of all four Beatles from a 1967 edition of Look magazine. It portrays Paul McCartney in bubble gum pink and cotton candy blue, while John Lennon basks in an array of fire truck red and mustard yellow. These rare peeks into magazine history makes the visitors feel like a kid in a candy store looking into a glass case of sweets (not magazines). The temptation to turn their yellowed pages and see more is as hard to suppress as sneaking a lollipop from a candy jar. However, these treasures are safely protected beneath glass cases and are for viewing pleasure, not touching. The one downfall of the exhibit is that these tender pieces of photojournalism history are hard to see beneath the usually crowded case. Visitors might find themselves wishing they could have been displayed in a better manner.
These spreads may seem completely opposite to Monroe’s picture and many similar celebrity portraits, but a museum visitor will not feel lost among the glass cases and framed photographs. The best way to describe the common thread of Avedon’s work was what one British tourist named Joe Robertson commented as, “Personality I suppose…there’s a lot of emotion and personality that come across in his photos.” I could not agree more with Mr. Robertson’s point of view. Simple human exuberance is spread across all of his photos. The most striking of which are actually in his fashion photographs. Mr. Avedon was fascinated by New York social life, and it’s mistresses like Suzy Parker and Dorian Leigh. He captured these women’s glamorous fame and fashion like no other photographer could. His editorial work became more than just advertisements, but instead illustrations of what the pieces of couture represented.
Many may come to this exhibit for the world-renowned pictures of Dovima and the Elephants or his final portrait of musician Bjork. Joe Robertson said his favorite pictures were, “…the celebrity pictures because I’m not familiar with celebrities because I’m from Britain…” and describes coming across them as, “…quite exciting.” Although these are important elements to Richard Avedon’s work, they are not what many would consider “the crown jewel” of his collection. As one wanders through the rooms of the MOMA’s exhibit of this famous connoisseur of photography they might find that they are drawn to the pictures of unknown Americans as much as recognizable celebrities. Each viewer might even find that they are drawn to a self-portrait of Avedon without even realizing it is the famous photographer himself. Avedon’s true diamond in the rough is in his ability to make a photograph of an unknown person feel like it came right out of a family album. He allows his viewers to be connected with his subject with only the click of his shutter.
Overall the exhibit of Richard Avedon’s work is unique of the MOMA because unlike the rather redundant art that occupies the ominous brick building, Richard Avedon’s is a collection that ranges over many types of subjects but is all tied together by one thing: human individuality. While going over his life’s work museum goers will be surprised that Richard Avedon gives new meaning to the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words” and how many more words a capture. MOMA did an excellent job of inspiring visitors to mourn the photographer’s death, even if they only knew about him after they went through the exhibit. Although the talented photographer is gone, his photographs remain with us forever, and this exhibit will not be the last to honor his work.
To visit the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art’s exhibit, Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 go to http://www.sfmoma.org or call (415) 357-4000 for information.
The museum hours are from 11 a.m. to 5:45 p.m. daily (except Wednesdays), and are open until 8:30 pm on Thursdays. This summer the museum opens early at 10 a.m. Ticket fees are 15$ for adults, 9$ for seniors and students, and free for children 12 and under. Admission is free the first Tuesday of each month and half price Thursdays after 6 p.m.