‘Players and contenders’


General Photography

“Avedon never made any pretence to objectivity; the notion of the dispassionate lens he wrote off as delusion. His work, he said, was at least as much about him as his subjects: a vast collective self-portrait of the compulsions he projected on to America’s faces and figures. […] As hip as he mostly was, Avedon was, at root, an old-style Jewish moralist whose texts were written in freckles and furrows, pits and pocks. Sometimes those marks and blemishes, which stood out so sharply in front of the white sheet against which his subjects posed, were lit as poetic expressions of the persona. Avedon took delight in tweaking - or annihilating - the expected icon.” (story)

What an interesting article, even though, I think, the actual truth (if that’s the correct word even!) is a bit deeper. Schama correctly notes that viewing Avedon’s portraits as “collaborations” is only true to a certain extent; and Avedon’s defense of his work in that light can (and should!) be seen as a clever move by a photographer who is well aware of how red herrings can be used effectively.

In that sense, Jim’s reading - especially comparing things with the Greenberg mess - is a bit off: Of course, Avedon did manipulate at least some of his sitters into the poses he wanted to see - as he openly admitted in a documentary, where he described how he got the Duke of Windsor and his wife to look so stricken (they had, in fact, been smiling all the way through the shot, until Avedon claimed that his car had run over a dog on the way to the shoot - which resulted in the animal lovers’ expressions dropping).

Avedon clearly knew what he wanted to see, which, I think, explains - at least for me - why certain photographs work so much better than many others (for me, Avedon’s show business photographs are mediocre at best).

But then, what do we want to see? Portraiture is almost always treated as if there is a photographer meeting some subject, and as if the outcome of the portrait session is entirely determined by those two people, and by nobody else. I think that’s just plainly wrong. And you can see this extremely strongly in Schama’s article, where many of the political portraits are seen with the eyes of someone who knows very well what he thinks there is to be seen.

If I dislike Karl Rove, for example, then of course Rove’s complaint that he was made to look stupid will strike me as ridiculous: Isn’t Avedon showing me Karl Rove the way I want to see him? I remember when I first saw that photo my initial reaction was a wave of almost nausea, because of the smugness in Rove’s face; and my second reaction, delayed by just a second, was to wonder whether I hadn’t just fallen into a trap, like a rookie almost. Would I be able to see Karl Rove in any other way? Do I even entertain the idea that Karl Rove is not a manipulative bastard whose actions have caused immense detriment to the American democracy? How would I react to a photo of Karl Rove crying? Wouldn’t I automatically assume that that was not the real Karl Rove?

(As an aside, compare this with mainstream reactions to the portrayal of Adolf Hitler in the movie “Downfall”: Portraying the man responsible for the deaths of millions of people as a human being was widely criticized. But then, how are we to understand history if we prefer to view historical figures merely as caricatures? And how do we then think we can deal with what will be history tomorrow, namely with our own times?)

So then, especially in the context of political portraiture, don’t we have to include the viewer in the discussion of portraiture? And how would one do this smartly?

Coincidentally, doesn’t part of this thinking that it’s the photographer and the subject that determine the portrait explain why so many people just hate a lot of contemporary portraiture, such as Thomas Ruff’s portraits? With no hook to latch onto aren’t we a bit afraid that we have to decide what to make of those people?