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Corcoran Museum Showcases Photographer Richard Avedon's ‘Portraits of Power’

Richard 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 exhibit.

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 power."

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 subjects.

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 Coordinating Committee.

"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 recalls.

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.