Monday, 23 March 2009
with a footnote on Gerhard Richter.
The first major exhibition of Avedon's work since his death, Photographs: 1946-2004 is a sweeping retrospective of his work currently on show at FOAM. It covers all of his work, from early fashion work for Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and others through to his later celebrity portraits. Virtually all of the work comes from the Avedon Estate, all original prints by the artist as none of his work has been reprinted since his death.
This is a large collection, more that 200 prints on display, taking the entireity of the exhibition space in the rather small FOAM building (thhe permanent collection has decamped across the road for the duration of this exhibition).
I had limited exposure to Avedon's work in the past, and certainly nothing in any kind of context. Starting with the early work, the fashion photography looks fresh and modern. The settings and poses seem very typical of fashion photography, until one looks at the dates of the work - they are all from the early fifties. It is clearly evident how Avedon was breaking the mould of static, posed fashion photography, turning it into a living, vital visual expression. One can see the origins of modern aspirational fashion marketing in Avedon's photographs.
One then moves through the galleries, away from the assignment-style magazine shoots into the portraiture for which he is probably better known. Here, again, there is a sense of innovation. These are much more that glamorous celebrity pictures or environmental portraits, with descriptive props all around. These are deeper, more intimate probing into the deeper character of the subjects. Avedon's use of white backdrops focuses attention on the sitter and the masterful prints have a sense of depth and solidity that makes these people real in way that I've not often seen in photographs. The quality of the prints really has to be experienced first hand.
The exhibition itself is well constructed to show the work to maximum advantage. The framing, lighting, and annotation all help to enhance the work by not detracting from it. Pairs and groups of images are selecting to draw comparisons between the work and the subjects. Even the free brochure is well done.
I'm rather glad that I was delayed in writing this review as I have had a chance to visit the National Portrait Gallery in London, in particular the current exhibition Gerhard Richter: Portraits. It is not directly related to photography as Richter work from photographs to produce his paintings but it draws interesting comparison in artistic philosophy. Richter said that
"A portrait should not express anything of the sitter's soul, essence or character"
Working from photographs, Richter produced work that looks rather like photographs greatly enlarged but often distorted enough to obscure context and introduce abiguity of subject or meaning.
In contrast, Avedon expressly uses the ability of personal contact and the literal nature of photography to get beyond the surface impression of his subjects.
It was also interesting to view some of the photography galleries at NPG. After seeing Avedon's work, suddenly the other portraits I saw seem rather staid and derivative. It only served to highlight what a master of the form Avedon really was.
There is also a book that accompanies the exhibition which I was able to peruse at length at FOAM. While the reporductions don't have quite the depth of tone and certainly none of the impact of size, they are, nonetheless, excellent prints for a book. There are also some rather good essays to accompany the work. I would certainly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in portrait photography - it is almost a single volume masterclass in the genre.
Gerhard Richter: Portraits is at the National Portrait Gallery, London until 31st May 2009
Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 is on at FOAM until 13th May 2009 and then travelling on.
The accompanying book Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004 is published by Louisiana Museum of Modern Art