Avedon’s vision

bernsein by avedon

So check this out, which I’d somehow not seen before: a Richard Avedon portrait of Leonard Bernstein (from a New Yorker article just posted on 10 Sept 2018). It is far from Avedon’s greatest portrait but it has certain technical and emotional and spiritual elements visible in it that demonstrate why, for me at least, Avedon was the greatest photographic portraitist I know of. Note the energy of the photograph, which arises from, or is promoted by, certain technical qualities–how his hair just touches the top of the frame, dark against white, and his left hand, white against dark, just touches the bottom. It’s instructive to draw an imaginary line between those two points. Note the angled line of the right (his right) side of his face, his upper arm, his right index finger; paralleled on the left, almost, by his forearm and, neatly, by the bottom of his left hand. Avedon was unmatched at seeing and dramatizing, extremely sometimes, some essence in his subjects that you recognize instantly as their essences. Note how the picture is off-center–you can see that Bernstein is actually moving, the picture has that movement in it, he is moving toward the center; his hips show that his right legs is further forward than his left. I’d venture (without getting up to check) that the pictures that Avedon took of people who stayed still — whom he had stay still — are militantly centered. Bernstein was about movement. You don’t plan these these things, you don’t tell Bernstein to move his hand into a certain line, no. You develop an internal instrument that sees these elements, that knows when to push the button, that knows looking at the proofs which pictures are doing what they need to do. And if you have Avedon’s instrument, you find the picture that does more than it needs to do; you find the picture that is transcendentally human and true. As with beer, and Bach, and many other complex and near-perfect things, I didn’t like Avedon when I was younger. He doesn’t feed one’s immediate reward centers, visually; or he didn’t mine. It took years of looking at pictures for me to learn how great he is.

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