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Avedon's America

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Corcoran Offers Power Trip From Politicos to Pop Icons

Stepping into the first of eight rooms that the Corcoran Gallery of Art has dedicated to “Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power” might feel like stepping into an old comfortable pair of slippers for some viewers. Here we have both the familiar faces and the familiar minimalist portrait style that made Avedon famous: a young Norman Mailer, an almost innocent-looking Robert Oppenheimer (father of the atomic bomb), an old Henry Kissinger and a young Henry Kissinger, a burnt-out Dorothy Parker, a nude of ballet impresario Rudolf Nureyev, and Charlie Chaplin posing with fingers as devil’s horns.

Anyone who’s read the New Yorker, Harper’s Bazaar or Vogue, or just has a passing interest in photography, cannot have missed Avedon’s work, which is generally considered among the best of its kind. His unadulterated yet dramatic portraits of subjects against his signature white background and black borders offer a raw glimpse into personalities ranging from Ronald Reagan to Malcolm X.

Here, the Corcoran brings together a whopping 231 of those portraits, and although the gallery bills the exhibition as the first time that Avedon’s “political portraits of the country’s power elite” have been on full display, the widely anticipated show brings together as many fairly average power players as it does presidents, senators, dukes and duchesses.

But this exhibition may be more about one artist’s lifelong journey than the photos themselves. The Corcoran offers a visual historic tour of the United States through the eyes of one of the world’s greatest photographers, illustrating how his interests and consequently choice of subjects changed over time from the 1950s up until his death in 2004 — changing interests that reflected a changing America.

On Oct. 1, 2004, Avedon suffered a brain hemorrhage in San Antonio, Texas, while on assignment for the New Yorker. At the time of his death, he was working on a new project titled “On Democracy” that focused on the run-up to the 2004 U.S. presidential election. The United States now stands on the eve of another presidential election, and “Portraits of Power” takes viewers on a road trip back to how this country reached the historic crossroads it stands at now with its first black presidential nominee and first female Republican vice presidential nominee.

The Corcoran has organized Avedon’s portraits chronologically within the artist’s specific editorial projects, culminating at the 2004 Democratic National Convention in Boston with a stunning close-up of today’s Democratic nominee Barack Obama, who then made his nationwide debut as a senator from Illinois. From then on, viewers observe Avedon’s professional journey shooting people of politics and power — unsurprisingly, many of them men — although interestingly it wasn’t until about midway into his career that Avedon even considered photographing politicians.

On that note, the Cor-coran show does not in-clude Avedon’s work as a fashion photographer, which garnered him success in his early career, when he began working for Harper’s Bazaar. In 1966, he left Harper’s for Vogue, where he photographed most of the covers until 1990. But as Avedon’s interests developed and changed, so did his subjects, and in 1992 he became the first staff photographer for the New Yorker magazine.

Perhaps it’s regrettable that the Corcoran didn’t include a few of Avedon’s early fashion shots to contrast with his power portraits. In the fashion world, Avedon stylishly depicted models often smiling and caught in mid-motion. But with his sitting power subjects, he was known to provoke reactions by discussing controversial issues or asking probing questions. The reactions of his subjects helped to produce the stark, revealing portraits for which he is so well known.

In any case, the Corcoran exhibit — though meandering at times — offers an opportunity to trace Avedon’s career as it veered away from fashion and into more serious political and artistic realms. In the first room, for instance, we see a youthful folk singer Joan Baez, poets W.H. Auden and Ezra Pound, as well as former President Dwight D. Eisenhower. From there, one travels to “The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution,” a commanding group of women adorned in their best gowns and sashes — each exuding a bit of Queen Elizabeth II — bustling about at a DAR convention at the Mayflower Hotel in 1963.

In sharp contrast to the royal assemblage, there’s a young civil rights activist Julian Bond marching in a protest rally, along with a blurred close-up of Malcolm X in his trademark glasses. Though Avedon’s portraits never comment directly on race, his “George Wallace, former Governor of Alabama, with his valet, Jimmy Dallas,” depicting the aging, formerly pro-segregation governor in 1993 alongside the face of his black valet, speaks volumes. Avedon, in fact, photographed people on both sides of the civil rights debate for his 1964 book “Nothing Personal,” which was around the same time he began documenting the Vietnam War.

The show switches gears for Avedon’s Vietnam coverage, taking viewers back to America’s last protracted war before Iraq. There is a gruesome portrait of a woman whose face has been savaged by napalm — leaving her with only one eye. A leper in Saigon is missing all his fingers on one hand, while in another shot U.S. soldiers pose with mini-skirted young Vietnamese women. Here, U.S. Lt. Joe Hooper, the most decorated soldier in Vietnam, stares straight ahead with a toothy grin.

Also featured — and perhaps more appropriate to the theme of the exhibit — is Avedon’s groundbreaking portrait series “The Family,” depicting heads of state, government bureaucrats, lawyers, lobbyists, media moguls, captains of industry and union leaders — an iconic collage commissioned by Rolling Stone magazine in 1976 of the country’s political, military, media and corporate elite.

That type of imagery comes into the present in the last room with photographs of novelist Salman Rushdie, Sen. John Kerry, former U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, the Dalai Lama, a weary Henry Kissinger, filmmaker Michael Moore, actor-turned governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, and all the way back to presidential hopeful Barack Obama, with plenty of politicos and pop icons in between.

It’s a heady, powerful ride but one that leaves out the partisan commentary as Avedon lets the camera speak for itself. Or rather, he lets his subjects speak for themselves, whether it’s a past or possibly future U.S. president, or a nameless protestor or bureaucrat — all equally frozen in a soul-capturing moment by a master’s lens.

Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power through Jan. 25 Corcoran Gallery of Art 500 17th St., NW For more information, please call (202) 639-1700 or visit www.corcoran.org.

About the Author

Rachel Ray is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C.

Last Edited on November 29, 1999