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Richard Avedon's In the American West
by M A X - K O Z L O F F

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These wild technical and mood swings are worked up in a jabbing, graphic magazinelike layout, as if Avedon thought that a book audience had as short an attention span as a fashion-mag public. One gets the strange feeling that while the illustrations are present, the feature articles are absent. In their place is an essay by James Baldwin, at his most self-indulgently alienated and bitter. Not only does his prose fail to mention the pictorials, it has nothing to do with them, regardless of the occasional avowed racists Avedon depicts. There is something half-baked about the way the book seeks to move visually from the emphatic trifles of the fashion media to the "relevance" - a word then in great currency of political statement.

Baldwin lashes out at the unmitigated nastiness of the American scene, but Avedon does no such thing. This impresario of haute couture at Vogue and Harper's Bazaar lacked the credentials to offer any sort of critique from below. Even when it would seem to be suggested by a tendentious icon, there was no moral energy in his outlook. We're in a world only of angles, not of values. The book offers an uneasy sequence of sentimental, tart, sycophantish, and pitiless images. A group portrait of D.A.R. officials comes on simultaneously as a takeoff from Irving Penn's Twelve Most Photographed Models (I947) and as a satire on genealogical arrogance, but is too respectful to succeed on either count.

One of the most vivid faces in the history of portraiture is also here, that of William Casby, an ex-slave. One of the most significantly disturbed personalities in our post-World War II history, Major Claude Etherly, bombardier of the Enola Gay at Hiroshima, makes an appearance, though he does not create an impression. Nothing Personal certainly grabs one's attention, but it doesn't add up. It's so busy figuring out its strategies that it gives the reader the idea that Avedon had no time to respond to anyone. Much of the album assumes a clarity of purpose that is not realized in a design chopped up by willful and unexplained thematic jumps.

Like crossed wires, the messages in this curious album seem to have shorted out. Thereafter, we no longer see a rhetoric infused through the junction of image-sets or portrait scenarios. Strangely enough, such a liberation does not appear to have refreshed his sitters. A pall now generally falls over them, and their body language is constrained to a few rudimentary gestures. Avedon, in fact, would take the portrait mode into a new, antitheatrical territory. Visualized from familiar rituals of self-consciousness and self-scrutiny, portraits offer specific moments of human presentation, enacted during an unstable continuum. Whatever their apprehensions, sitters hope to be depicted in the fullness of their selfhood, which is never less than or anything contrary to what they would be taken for (considering the given, flawed circumstances). What ensues in a portrait is usually based on a social understanding between sitter and photographer, a kind of contract within whose established constraints their interests are supposed to be settled. In his fashion work, Avedon dealt with models whose selfhood had been professionally replaced by aura. His career was a function of that aura. Presently, engaged with sitters, he found that their selfhood could become a function of his aura.

Avedon did nothing so crass as to intimidate his subjects since it was much simpler and more effective to put forth his indifference to the portrait contract itself. While depicting people, his portraits carry on as if they were describing objects of more or less interesting condition and surface. Though this deflates his subjects, such a radical procedure is just as evidently not hostile . . . not, at least, consciously hostile. Nothing Personal anticipates the route Avedon was to follow, and is already aptly named. Portraits, a much later book (I976), gets very close to its subjects in terms of physical space and is now decisively removed from them in emotional space. The noncommittal titles of these projects are ideological clues intended to suggest the absence of individual bias.

Many of the details in these newer portraits are very articulate socially and culturally, but the visualizing instinct behind them is certainly opaque. The photographer wants to do justice to the presence of the sitter, at that particular moment, though only insofar as he can make a certain kind of Avedon picture, or cause a sensation. (Ideally, the two would go together.) Avedon demonstrates such a long-term superiority in the contest of wills in portraiture that even the occasional assertiveness of a subject does not compromise the unconcernedly abusive look he had begun, in the sixties, to achieve and be known for. For all that they are sentient and experienced people, his subjects consented to exposure since it was still hard to imagine anyone like him taking their feelings so little into account. The contrast between what is presented and how it is processed generates the unsettling effect of the Avedon portrait. Let there be no mistake, that effect is here the equivalent of intended content.

Harold Rosenberg spoke of Avedon's "objective cruelty" (when photographing Warhol's scars), and then went on to write of the photographer as a difficult, reductionist artist, like Newman or Still. This is spectacularly wrong, since it implies that Avedon wanted to practice an ideal, difficult truthfulness, whereas he's a most equivocal, advantage-taking realist, and knows it. As he himself says about the western portraits: "Assumptions are reached and acted upon that could seldom be made with impunity in ordinary life." The big 8-by-10-inch camera is, then, an alibi for a most transgressive stare. Such a stare doesn't come from painting, of course, but it does stem from a knowledge of the German August Sander, whose catalogue of social types Avedon makes much harder edged, and of Diane Arbus, whose ecstatic, guilty transgressions Avedon routinely refrigerates.

An assumption of extreme, hard-headed realism is brandished through Avedon's portrait work. There is, for instance, the highly specific dating of these pictures, as if the day as well as the year of exposure mattered. This is extra, inessential information - and quite typical of a realist attitude. Then, too, one notices the clinical approach, the pronounced, unshaded clarity of sight and the emphasis on physical data. Further still, if Avedon's glamour imagery was known to be highly fictive, then his realist portraiture, through an altogether mechanical turn, would have to stand for everything unglamorous. In his recoil from the sentimental, Avedon hardly stops anywhere along the line until he gets to the unsparing and pugnacious. Even his young westerners seem to have a meanness knocked into their faces and only a bleak life in the future. Realists are thought to look the world unflinchingly in the face, and their credibility is supposedly increased the more imperfections they record.

In realist territory, Avedon had to compensate for his well-earned reputation for smart, commercial stagecraft, and he protests, accordingly, in the hands-off direction of these "dumb," do-nothing poses. The subjects are understood to be engaged with (or are caught in) nothing more than an unschooled or archaic attempt to comport themselves, which they more or less fumble, thus revealing their actual character.



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