The Richard Avedon Experience: SFMOMA

By Rebecca Kobert

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SFMOMA has a new exhibit on their hands: the works of Richard Avedon, one of the most influential and prolific photographers of the 20th (and early 21st) century. Going into the exhibit, it’s obvious that you will be viewing beautiful photographs documenting culture, fashion, and portraits over a five-decade span; but it was up to SFMOMA Senior Curator of Photography, Sandra S. Phillips, to deliver an exhibit that could take awe-inspiring work and fit it into seven rooms, all the while organizing it in a way that would have museum-goers in a daze.

Overall the organization was successful, with minor exceptions. Phillips eschewed arbitrary chronological order, rather dividing the works by style. However, the flow of the rooms was sometimes lacking, with one particular room, containing iconic images of The Beatles, Janis Joplin, Malcolm X, and Bob Dylan, being commonly missed. Were these images deemed too famous to be available to the less-observant public?

Richard Avedon’s aesthetic, simple yet deep, was carried through the décor. The rooms were all white, with black text (with a font that wasn’t in the least fussy) either explaining the works you were to view or revealing relevant aspects of his life. Fighting through the crowd to read the text was a bit bothersome, but they were all concise and well written.

Next to the introductory text were early post-WWII shots that established his skill as a photographer, and showed how far he moved away from them in both his fashion photography and portraits.

The first room was solely devoted to his fashion photography, from his early work with original muse Suzy Parker to the iconic image of Dovima with the elephants (blown up in the center of the middle wall) to memorable images of Twiggy to Verushka and Jean Shrimpton. Meanwhile, the plexi-glass box in the center displayed his original work in issues of Harper’s Bazaar. While Avedon’s career as a fashion photographer lasted his whole life, according to SFMOMA it ended in the ‘70s. People expecting more of his fashion photography may have left the exhibit a little disappointed.

The next room is where the portrait style that is seen in the ensuing rooms begins. The style of portraiture was really what provided the cohesion, as the dates spanned from the early ‘50s to mid-‘60s, and the people photographed varied widely. In this one room were the images of a stripped-down Marilyn Monroe, artist Giacometti, The Duke and Duchess of Windsor, murderer Dick Hickock, and Louis Armstrong, to name a few.

The following room featured portraits in the same style, but they all were politically tied, most coming from his political collection The Family, as explained in the ever-so-helpful text on the wall. Visitors were led into the next room only to be confronted with a rather shocking portrait of Andy Warhol and some very nude company in The Factory. This room appeared to have been the artists’ room, as it housed portraits of Andy Warhol, William de Koenig, Francis Bacon, Jasper Johns, and Richard Avedon himself.

A retrospective of Avedon’s Western series, taken from 1979 to 1984, is well represented in a room solely devoted to it. Four walls are covered in monumental portraits of ordinary, stripped-down people of the American West, with the single exception of a self-portrait taken at the time.

What appeared to be the final room was a bit of a toss-up, not really carrying much of a theme other than being a few of Avedon’s more modern photographs. Featured were his photo of Bjork, Avedon’s final piece, and a three-part self-portrait. This room had only three, as opposed to four, walls, and the informative black text was noticeably missing, lending to the fact that this room was a but of a mixed bag, not leaving the best final impression. However, with tickets allowing only one admission to the exhibit, many had to choose between Bjork and their bladders.

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