A journey through the work of Richard Avedon

By: Nick Hazelton

Simple and clean are two of the best words to describe the Richard Avedon exhibit at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Situated on the fourth floor, the exhibit takes up a whole wing and takes you on a journey through Avedon’s various and scattered portraits of many familiar faces.

As the exhibit starts, it leads into an room of Avedon’s iconic fashion photographs. Though iconic may be an overused word in the art world, it perfectly describes Avedon-he is an icon himself, as well as having subjects with iconic status. Detractors may claim that these images are already ingrained in our conscious to a point of being cliched. But, this exhibit shows use not just the famous Avedon but another side as well.

His long list of credentials support the fact that Avedon himself is an icon, working for everyone from Vogue to The New Yorker. In the middle of the room of fashion photos is a glass case holding some original editions of Harpers Bazaar, which house some of Avedon’s photographs. Immediately the viewer sees how Avedon incorporates journalistic techniques into the magazines. The magazines help to incorporate a feel of timelessness, and how Avedon’s work will not soon be forgotten.

The photographs are impressive. They line the walls in single line, with clean white frames and short descriptions, which include the subject and date, next to each photograph. The lighting strikes the photographs at just the right angle so as to accentuate the contrast. One aspect of Avedon’s photographs is that they are all black and white, with the exceptions of the magazines. Even when color film was available, Avedon continued to use black and white, which is an interesting choice in portraits. There is so much color in the face-lips, eyes, skin tones, yet Avedon continued to capture the true soul of every person he photographed through only using black and white. The MoMA does an excellent job of displaying the photographs, using the simple white walls and light hardwood floors to help emphasize the photographs. In the room of fashion photographs, there are a few wooden frames with some of his original sketches.

Much of the exhibit follows this format. The next few rooms, including one with various political figures as well as one with a “who’s who” of twentieth century pop culture, are very similar in their format.

Some photographs are sized bigger than others, with the largest being an impressive larger than life-size shot of Andy Warhol and the Factory. This photograph is shocking, incorporating people in the nude, just being unexpected at this turn. But everyone seems impressed and in awe of the photograph, it was hard not to be just because of its scale as compared to the other, smaller photographs. The photographs all convey emotions that were previously unknown or unexpected in many of his subjects, such as vulnerability in Marilyn Monroe, or his elderly father, Jacob Israel Avedon.

As the exhibit continues, an unexpected turn hits you. A room full of Avedon’s work from the “American West” lines the walls. This is the one room that does not seem to follow the white-framed format that is so prevalent in the rest of the collection. Instead of being placed in glass frames with a white border, the photographs are left uncovered, and simply placed on silver backings, with wires in front so the crowds can’t get too close. This element helps diversify the exhibit, and also emphasize the difference of these photographs from the others. The photographs are not of celebrities or athletes, or even fashion, but the real, honest people of America. They are uncovered, much like the physical being of the photographs, which, as stated, have no glass covering.

The piercing eyes in the piece of Clifford Feldner is just one of the many very raw pieces contained within this room. The crowd seemed most enthralled by this room, as well as the most quiet and reflective when viewing. The atmosphere in this one room is completely different from the rest of the exhibit. Even its position in relation to the other rooms, near the back, supports the quiet setting.

The exhibit ends with a series of three photographs of Richard Avedon himself. Self-portraits of Avedon are scattered throughout, and the ending pictures bring the exhibit full circle, going from Avedon being a young and inexperienced photographer, to the wise old soul that he became by the end of the exhibit and his lifetime. The photographs are beautifully displayed in the SF MoMA, bringing out the beautiful qualities that Avedon captured throughout his life.

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