It must have been somewhere in 1993 or so, on one of our annual Thanksgiving treks to Austin, Texas, when we made a side trip up to Ft. Worth to see the wonderful Louis Kahn Kimbell Museum there. While there, we wandered across the generous mall to the Amon Carter Museum where Richard Avendon's commission from the museum, In the American West, was hanging. I remember it for both the images and the visceral response that I had to it. At the time I thought it exploitive and unfair. In contrast to all of his celebrity work on the East Coast and in Europe, these were images of forsaken and impoverished people. The images above, a portrait of Marilyn Monroe, and the other photograph of Sandra Bennett, demonstrate the contrast.
The current show at SFMOMA, Richard Avedon, Photographs from 1946 - 2004, is stunning. Oddly enough, my old antipathy to the western photographs seems to have disappeared. Why? Was it that both rich and poor are caught in the photographer's deep focus, that sharpens their humanity, plight, and genius? In talking with Arthur about the show in the Cafe Museo afterward (great carrot cake), he reminded me of my and his reaction to a show of Diane Arbus photographs some years earlier, some of which were photographed on the campus of an institution for the mentally ill. That, we agreed, was exploitation. Perhaps my reaction to the Avedon "West" photographs was engendered more by chauvinism and pride on my part.
In the later photographs, with the deep focus and the white background we really encounter individuals with no small amount of frailty. In series of photographs of his father over a decade, we watch the man dissolve with age. My favorite photograph is of the pianist Oscar Levant, in which we are made aware of the erosion of age, but the indefatigability of the human spark. The Marilyn Monroe in his photograph of her seems despondent, looking to that middle place where she knows that youth is fleeting. In contrast Sandra Bennett, in spite of her humble circumstances exudes both youth and a defiant hope.
Of interest is the show of Robert Frank photographs, The Americans, on the floor below, which we looked at last weekend. He took on a similar task as did Avedon for the Amon Carter Museum, but was much more catholic in his approach, photographing all sorts and conditions of Americans in a trek that extended from coast to coast. The photograph of the starlet, slightly out of focus, actually hones in on the everyday people that focus on her. Such is the delightful dialogue that Frank invests in his photographs.
As a document of mid to late 20th Century social customs and culture, the Avedon photographs are just stunning. The fashion photography is a thing unto itself, ranging from pure theater to unbridled human delight. One piece struck me as something I shall want to study more. It is his photograph of members of Andy Warhol's Factory. There is a monumentality to this photograph, and an almost classical posing of the individuals. This is the second time that I've seen this photograph (although in the SFMOMA show, presented on a much larger scale). It was shown in a de Young show on Warhol last year. I find it to be almost Renaissance in effect, evoking its own mythology and story.
There are many treasures in the show, and it will be worth more than one visit. Rejoice in your humanity by going and looking at some others - famous and not, but all with immense dignity.
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