Controversial Photographer Richard Avedon Reaches Jerusalem

His legendary manipulation snared alleged anti-Semitic royals.

Richard Avedon (1923-2004), one of the most influential figures in the development of photography in the 20th century, is the subject of a newly opened exhibition at the Israel Museum. This is the first presentation in Israel devoted to Avedon. The exhibition consists of two of his projects, which were donated to the museum last year by Leonard Lauder and the Foundation for Contemporary Arts, the Gagosian Gallery in New York and the Richard Avedon Foundation.

The first project consists of a very large mural photograph of the family of the poet Allen Ginsberg. Juxtaposed, are three panoramas of groups of people who were involved in creating a radical atmosphere in the United States at the end of the 1960s. The second body of work, titled “The Family,” is made up of 69 portraits of figures who were involved in the U.S. election campaign of 1976, following the Watergate scandal. Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Henry Kissinger, Gerald Ford and other politicians and public figures of the period feature in this portfolio of portraits, which originally appeared in the magazine Rolling Stone. Visitors to the exhibition can see the original Avedon prints, accompanied by the reduced versions from the magazine. “This is an 
exhibition about the different uses of photography, about what lies between art and commercial use – two areas in which Avedon worked throughout his life,” says the exhibition’s curator, Noam Gal, who was recently appointed the museum’s curator of photography.

The exhibition’s focus is on projects of a political character, which Avedon pursued in the 1970s, not on the fashion photographs that brought him fame. The fact that Avedon specialized in commercial photography involving fashion and celebrities – and perhaps also the fact that he himself was a celebrity whose work made him rich – makes it difficult to catalog him in the history of art, Gal notes. Avedon acquired his reputation early in his career, and from the 1970s until his death in 2004, “people made pilgrimages to his studio in order to have their photograph taken,” Gal says.

Identified with commercial photography, Avedon has been somewhat dislodged from the official history of art, even though he initiated and took part in exhibitions and his work was exhibited at temples of art such as the Museum of Modern Art and the Whitney Museum of American Art. In any event, Gal says, “he left a lasting imprint on the history of photographic portraiture.”

Avedon created a style in which a white background isolates the subject of the photograph, showing him in sharp, almost cruel clarity. Gal: “Avedon was a master of portraiture. He was known for talking to his subjects, in order to extract from them exactly the expression and emotion he wanted.” The large Deardorff camera Avedon used allowed him to conduct conversations with his subjects as he stood next to the camera, rather than behind it. “He was also extremely manipulative, for which he took a great deal of criticism,” Gal adds.

Avedon’s manipulative aspect is most saliently seen in his portrait of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, who were known for their ostentation and their anti-Semitism. The photographer, who was from a Jewish family, once remarked that the couple “loved dogs more than they loved Jews.” Legend has it that 
Avedon made the royal pair feel comfortable at first, but just before he clicked the camera he told them (falsely) that the taxi in which he arrived had run over a dog on the way. “The two regal personages look utterly crushed in the photograph,” Gal observes (http://lisawallerrogers.wordpress.com/2009/10/09/the-duke-and-duchess-of-windsor-we-are-not-amused/). Avedon, he adds, “was also criticized for photographing his father as he was dying of cancer, until his last breath, and afterward making giant prints of the shots.”

Concurrent with the exhibition, the Israel Museum has for the first time launched an Internet site to serve as a platform for discussions about the connections between political and commercial photography and the world of art, issues that arise from the exhibition. Responses (some are in Hebrew) can be submitted and read on the Avedon exhibition site at imj.org.il. According to Gal, this is the first project of its kind in Israel. It was undertaken, he says, to encourage viewers “to talk to us about what interests them and what they would like to see in the museum.”