No one visiting the Metropolitan Museum's retrospective exhibition of the 79-year-old New York photographer's portraits will come away without saying "Thank God I never subjected myself to that man's camera!" Yet many who have done so are famous people who considered sitting for Avedon as a confirmation of their celebrity.
The exhibit of 180 photographic portraits, on view though Jan. 5, is the second the Metropolitan has accorded Avedon. The first show in 1979 was devoted to his fashion photographs for Vogue and Harper's Bazaar magazines that first brought him acclaim and inspired the 1956 Hollywood film, "Funny Face," with Fred Astaire playing the Avedon-like fashion photographer.
The current show is divided between Avedon's photos of key players in the latter half of the 20th century -- statesmen and politicians, artists and actors, writers and composers, scientists and an astronaut (Gus Grissom) -- and more ordinary folk who interested him, including war protestors, drifters, a murderer, carnival workers, a beekeeper, ranch hands, housewives, his own family and himself.
The fashionable world is represented only by a photograph of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, one of the most riveting images in the show. The famous couple, their faces ravaged by advancing age and self-indulgence, tilt their heads together in a show of fondness, but their empty eyes and their grim mouths tell another story -- of a great love gone stale in the forced confinement of exile.
This same sense of unfulfilled lives is mirrored in Avedon's study of a lonely, confused Marilyn Monroe caught in an introspective moment at the end of a night on the town in Manhattan in 1957. The pathos in Monroe's face is repeated in many other forlorn visages, including those of writers Dorothy Parker and Truman Capote, composer Igor Stravinsky, fashion designer James Galanos, and Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, whose icy glance is both frightened and arrogant.
The exhibition celebrates Avedon's gift to the museum of 128 prints that made up a show at the Marlborough Gallery in Manhattan in 1975. Highlights of that show on view at the Metropolitan are his 31-foot wide study of Andy Warhol's Factory members, mostly naked youths in an out of drag, that occupies a place of honor in the exhibit. It is stared at incredulously from across the gallery by William Casby, born a slave in Louisiana in 1863 and photographed by Avedon in 1970.
Of particular interest is a group of 70 photo portraits of American makers and shakers titled "The Family," taken in the Bicentennial Year of 1976 for Rolling Stone magazine. They range from Secretary of State Henry Kissinger and United Farm Workers organizer Cesar Chavez to former first lady Ladybird Johnson and National Football League Commissioner Pete Rozelle.
Other fascinating "family photos" are a group shot of the Chicago Seven, the notorious anti-war crusaders of the 1960s, looking appropriately defiant, and "The Mission Council," a grouping of important government officers and military advisers photographed at the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Vietnam, in 1971, looking for all the world like suspects in a police lineup, all of them guilty.
Avedon worked with a minimum of props and always a blank white background. Thus there is nothing to distract the eye from his subjects. He first worked with a hand-held square format Rolleiflex camera, which forced him to look down when arranging a photograph, but in 1969 he switched to an 8- by 10-inch view camera on a tripod that allowed him to look straightforward at his subjects.
Some critics claim that his photographs after 1969 are more natural and personal as a result of the camera switch, but this is not particularly evident to the amateur viewer. Nothing could be more natural that his 1955 portrait of black contralto Marian Anderson singing, her face framed in flowing, wind-blow hair, her eyes closed and her lips forming a perfect "0," or the disarming 1958 shot of novelist Carson McCullers, a middle-aged innocent.
One of the truly great Avedons is his 1958 study of poet Ezra Pound, uttering a primal cry of defiance as he bares his chest to the slings and arrows of his critics, both literary and political. It is a work that assaults viewers emotionally, even those who may not know that 1958 was the year he was found unfit by reason of insanity to stand trial for making anti-American broadcasts from Italy during World War II.
To walk through this sprawling exhibit is to walk through history, some of it not very pretty. The beauty is in the photography. Avedon was out to capture the soul of his sitters, and very often he succeeded.
As show organizer Maria Hambourg says in the accordion-style exhibition catalog ("Richard Avedon: Portraits," Harry N. Abrams, 34 pages, $35): "Each person (photographed) yields up aspects of his or her interior self, some usually hidden but essential traits. Exactly how the photographer makes visible these fundamental conditions is the mystery of his genius."