Meditations on Photographs: Jacob Israel Avedon, Sarasota, Florida, May 15, 1971 by Richard Avedon


In photography, we never see a before or after. We only see a moment, a carefully selected moment, and we are given the gift of being able to look at something we never get to experience in real life: Time stopped, death told to wait. Photography’s limitation, the fact that it’s a moment gone already, turns into its true strength, confronting us with our own desires, and our mortality.


Our memories are our own personal histories. As we age, they accumulate, usually in flattering, merciful ways. This is how Nature has our brains operate, to allow us to preserve a modicum of dignity (or what we think dignity might be). On the other side, the literally other side: the surface of the skull, Nature tends to be less kind. Here, we cannot easily hide that which we do not want to share. In our faces, we see our history, we see what life has done to us. As we age, we age visibly. (more)

But maybe the cruelty here is not that Nature shows on our faces what we often hide behind them. Maybe it is that Nature allows us to manipulate our histories in our minds while having us face reality every time we step in front of a mirror. In that sense, our faces operate much like the slave that would accompany a glorious leader on a triumph through ancient Rome. He would stand behind the triumphant general, holding a golden crown above the man’s head and whisper in his ear “Remember you are mortal.”

The face is a surface, and photography loves surfaces. Photography especially loves rugged surfaces. It is very hard to take a good portrait, but it gets considerably easier once you have an old face in front of your lens. Old faces tell stories, and we love photographs that tell stories. A simple image of an old face has the old face do the job. A skillful photographer will be able to tell a different story, or s/he will be able to mix stories - this is where things get even more interesting.

But for the most part we do not see too many old faces. We live in a culture that has come to deny the reality of life, that has taken an absurd idea as the token of beauty, the idea that a borderline malnourished and baby-face person somehow represents the essence of life. We are surrounded by young faces, we are surrounded by photographic series focusing on the young, as if life magically got so much easier once you’re old. Somehow, we are told - and are happy to believe - life happens when you’re young. When you’re old… Well…

Richard Avedon spent a considerable fraction of his career helping cement the idea of youth as the stand-in for beauty. Working as a highly paid fashion photographer, he produced countless photographs of beautiful people, to be used in fashion magazines - photographs that, by the nature of the world they were produced for, were already out of fashion the moment the magazines hit the newsstands. Fashion constantly devours itself, creating a culture where the only thing that is worth anything is what might be en vogue the next day. It throws our vanity back at us in the most cruel way.

Throughout his career, which of course also included a great many non-fashion editorial and commercial jobs, Avedon struggled with the culture to which he was contributing. An early and impressive example is provided by Nothing Personal, a selection of some of his work, with an essay contribution by James Baldwin. Through a carefully constructed mix of images, the book paints a very grim picture of the 1950s in the US, a society intent on presenting a simple, cheerful life, with a very dark underside - Nazis, racists, mental illness - lurking just beneath the surface.

Nothing Personal for the most part uses images originally taken for other purposes. Twenty years later, Avedon would spend a considerable amount of time traveling through the American West, photographing his view of the region, a body of work that immediately came under fire once it was released and that has remained controversial up until today. Released as In the American West, the photographs never claim to be the American West (is there such a thing?). They showcase people from the fringes of society, or at least the society Avedon himself was part in. In the American West mirrors Nothing Personal: Both books essentially are a revolt against the world that had made the photographer.

They are different kinds of revolt, though: The earlier book could be seen as an appropriation - a photographer taking work out of their original contexts and placing it into a very different one. In contrast, the later book creates its own context. Avedon scoured the West for the characters he needed, never fully escaping the world he had become part of, a world where you take models to achieve a certain effect. In that sense, the irony of In the American West is that it operates not that differently from a regular fashion spread, where the idea is to sell a product, message, or life style.

There are very few instances where Avedon was truly able to break out of the prison he found himself in. One of those was provided when Avedon decided to photograph his father Jacob Israel Avedon. Over the course of the last years of his father’s life, the photographer took his portrait. The most arresting of them is from May 15, 1971. All of these portraits are quintessential Avedon - a white or close-to-white background, the framing etc. But while Avedon was a masterful manipulator of his subjects, his ability to do so seems to have slipped here. Or maybe he allowed himself to approach his aging father less as a subject to be molded according to his photographic whims and more like a son who happens to know how to use a camera masterfully.

There are two photographs taken on May 15, 1971, on the Avedon Foundation website. The father is formally dressed, wearing a suit that looks a tad too large. In the first photograph, Avedon’s father is seen looking somewhere next to the camera. The second photograph is the killer one. His left hand in front of his mouth, Jacob Israel Avedon’s head is tilted down just a little bit, the eyes focusing on a spot infinitely far away. This photograph is by no means a flattering one. It shows frailty, age, energy waning, maybe a bit of resignation.

We have to ask: Was this one of those moments where Richard Avedon said just the right thing to get the photograph he wanted - as when he told the Duke and Duchess of Windsor decades earlier that on the way to the studio his car had run over a dog to cut the cheerfulness from their faces? Was this another Marilyn Monroe moment - the photographer “exploiting” his sitter being tired, too tired to keep up appearances? I don’t know. I am not aware of an explanation available somewhere.

But Jacob Israel Avedon was not a public figure. It’s thus safe to assume that he approached being photographed in other ways than a Marilyn Monroe did. This might have made it easier for the photographer to manipulate the moment, to get the right picture. But what would Richard Avedon have gained from that? Why manipulate such a moment? What would the right picture be, standing in front of his father with his camera?

Whatever the photographer’s relationship to his father might have been, he was confronting not only an old man, he was confronting part of himself. As futile as this might be, we photograph so we can hold on to something, and I cannot imagine someone like Richard Avedon not being very aware of that. So to photograph a moment like the one in that second May 15, 1971 image is nothing but astounding. It is one thing to take a photo of a complete stranger near the end of her or his life. But to take such a photo of one’s own father, a photograph of a moment that for the most part stresses “Remember you are mortal” - that cannot have been done lightly.

Here then is a photograph where any agenda Avedon might have had falls away, where the photographer captured the essence of life, the fact that it fades away a little bit every moment - using the only medium that can do this by arresting the flow of time, photography. In photography, we never see a before or after. We only see a moment, a carefully selected moment, and we are given the gift of being able to look at something we never get to experience in real life: Time stopped, death told to wait. Photography’s limitation, the fact that it’s a moment gone already, turns into its true strength, confronting us with our own desires, and our mortality.