Avedon was the pre-eminent American fashion
photographer of the 20th century, but portraits were his passion. The Corcoran Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C., has assembled more than
two hundred of Avedon's "portraits of power," an exhibit that seems
fitting as Americans prepare to elect their next president. VOA's Susan Logue reports.
U.S. Presidents Dwight D.
Eisenhower, Ronald Reagan, and Jimmy Carter; spiritual leaders, from the Dalai
Lama to the Reverend Billy Graham; and physicist Robert Oppenheimer, known as
the "father of the atomic bomb," are among the photographs in "Richard
Avedon: Portraits of Power."
"Avedon always in his work wanted to get at something
true and essential about the person that he was photographing," says Paul Roth,
senior curator of photography at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, who organized the
Avedon did that by taking his subjects out of
their milieu. Nearly all of them were
photographed against a plain, white background.
"He felt that in doing so he brought the
viewer's complete attention to the person's face, the person's body, the
clothes they wore, the way their hair was combed," says Roth. "When he made his photographs I think he was
trying to penetrate the different masks people wear in order to exercise their
Choosing his subjects
Avedon's earliest portraits were often
creative people… like singer/songwriter Bob Dylan, soprano Marian Anderson and
movie director and actor Charlie Chaplin.
Sometimes the portraits were assignments from magazines like
Harper's Bazaar, Vogue, or The New Yorker. But Roth says Avedon's fame and success,
which came early in his career, gave him the freedom to choose his own
American Civil Rights Leader Julian Bond, who
currently chairs the NAACP was photographed by
Avedon three times. The first time was
1963, when Bond was 23. He was
photographed in Atlanta, with other founders of the Student Non-Violent
"We knew him primarily as a fashion
photographer, and that a fashion photographer would take the time to photograph
us, who were not a fashionable people -- we were impressed by that," Bond
Photographing the unfashionable
Increasingly, Avedon chose to photograph the
unfashionable, documenting not only the civil rights movement, but also the
American anti-war movement during the Vietnam War. In 1976, he photographed 69 of the most powerful Americans for a
photo essay in Rolling Stone Magazine called "The Family."
"He spent several months traveling
around the United States photographing a cross section of the power elite: people in government, in unions, in media,
in law, people he felt represented power," says Roth.
Four years ago, during the last presidential
campaign, he launched a similar project called "Democracy" for The New
Yorker magazine. He photographed
delegates at both political conventions, activists like filmmaker Michael Moore
and actor Sean Penn, politicians such as Karl Rove… and a young man who was
running for Senate, Barack Obama.
Obama makes an impression
"He saw the keynote address at the
Democratic convention given by Barack Obama," Roth says. "He felt it was clear that one day Obama
would run for the presidency and perhaps win, so he made the decision then, at
the very end of his portfolio, that the final image would be of Obama."
In fact, Obama's portrait is among the last
photographs Richard Avedon took. He
died of a brain hemorrhage on October 1, 2004, before completing the
"Democracy" project. "The New Yorker"
published the photos posthumously, putting Barack Obama's portrait last, just
as Avedon would have wished. It is also
among the final photos in the exhibit at the Corcoran.