SFMOMA Gallery Review
by Damico Shields
Having just recently watched “American Masters” Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light (1996), all I could think about when I saw “Dovima with Elephants, Evening Dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, 1955” was Avedon’s complaint that the picture would have been perfect if only her sash had been blown to her right (he was right). Blown up and painted on the entrance to the show “Richard Avedon: Photographs, 1946-2004” at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (July 11th-November 29th, 2009), this picture readies the patron for the unique style of Richard Avedon.
Moving through the exhibit, the eye is drawn towards the centerpiece of each room, such as the political leaders, industrial movers and shakers, union leaders and lobbyists in “The Family” collection spanning two walls, or the celebrity portraits sprinkled all over. No matter how powerful the subject, Avedon proved the stronger as he stripped each of all pretenses.
One striking example is “The Duchess and Duke of Windsor, New York, 1957.” A plain grey background shows the photo’s youth compared to his later white background. Still embracing in a simple pose for what they believed was a simple portrait, they’re faces had reacted before the rest of their bodies to Avedon’s quick story of running over a dog on his way to the shoot. What would have been another royal image has become a bleak portrayal of what appear to be real people. Centering the pair in the photo serves to emphasize the importance of this momentary look behind their public facades. The picture is much closer than these types of shots normally require, further emphasizing the deliberate nature of the image. Avedon uses the cropping, the centering, the background, not to force an untrue reaction, but to capture a fleeting real one.
Moving through the gallery, it is possible to become star struck, with every image presenting a new side of a celebrity you had not seen before. It ends abruptly once you reach the room displaying Avedon’s American West collection. The idea of capturing a fleeting moment is gone. Without changing his formula of the plain white background, Avedon is able to convey the same sense of who these people are as his celebrity shots, despite our lack of prior knowledge in the case of the Westerners.
“Sandra Bennet, Twelve Years Old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980” is a perfect example. No props, no environment, just a young girl and a white background. Her bare skin stands out against the backdrop via the cluttered covering of freckles. The detailed texture gives us a sense of hard work, even at her young age. Annoyance, perhaps from being photographed without prettying herself up, comes from her eyes. Without using clichés of Western photography such as geography, or a more environmental portrait, Avedon still manages to make it obvious where the picture was taken.
From early pictures of people on the beach, to fashion, to celebrity, to the West, the show retains a definite aura of the same photographer, no matter how different the styles may be. It is not a gallery of Avedon, it is a gallery of the people that Avedon saw and his interpretation of them. He captured what he believed to be the true side of his subject. Sometimes funny, sometimes disquieting, rarely what the viewer expects.