The human face was Richard Avedon’s medium. His subjects’ lines, curves and crags were the rhythm of his poetry, expressions subtle his tone, emotions blared and hinted his cadence.

Unabashedly capitalist with his art, unremittingly controlling of his (often very famous) subjects, Avedon is on a short list of the greatest photographers of other human beings.

I went to see Avedon’s exhibit today at Amsterdam’s FOAM museum. I know when art hits me in a special place, as it did in this exhibit, because I can’t stop moving. My skin stands up, my eyes twitch with emotion, and around Avedon’s work, I find myself stepping back and forth between the pictures, admiring new angles, scouring the surface of the grain wondering how he calculated each and every square inch – dodging, burning, developing final prints that, one after another, made their way into the pantheon of American celebrity.

I think my favorite image in the exhibition was the portrait of Buster Keaton. Avedon, using technique typical to his style, highly overexposes the image, blasting out the highlights enough to hide the top of Keaton’s hat – which he is holding arms-raised over his head – in a blinding bath of light.

Yet the clarity of Keaton’s face, and the rich depth of the conrasting shadows in his suit, cut a figure so vivid, Keaton really looks like he’s about to jump out of the image. That photograph evidences a master printer at work – Avedon dominated all aspects of the craft, from the ideas phase to the grimy darkroom chemicals.

Avedon had patience for the proper image, which arrives unnanounced at times – his iconic image of Charlie Chaplin on the day before the actor left America to escape Red Scare persecution – a picture Avedon called “a gift” from Chaplin – and his eyestopping frameup of Marilyn Monroe during a rare moment when the actress had dropped her act, are prime examples.

Avedon can claim so many of the images that have become iconic across the decades, pictures that sometimes reside in the collective memory as the definitive instances of some of our most important celebrities. He’s very much like Annie Leibovitz in that way, except he didn’t aim for an artistic pose of his subjects. He would stage an idea – I mean, obviously he had to, especially when he was working as a commercial photographer – but the setting was just a starting point. Avedon preferred a subject in action, in reaction, in unhedged mad-genius grotesque.

There were many wonderful and disturbing images among the more than 200 at FOAM. What I kept thinking about as I browsed through them was the depth and character that old-fashioned film photography allows the craftsman to elicit. The prints were a world away from – and Avedon’s 6×6 negs a world above – the edge-to-edge plastic perfection megapixels strive to achieve. Heavy grain marked many of the best images, and blur was used to effect. Further than that, each print bore the unmistakable and inevitable quirks of silver gelatin prints developed from a negative. My favorite example is this portrait of Bob Dylan in Central Park. It seems pretty obvious that the halo around the singer’s head came as a result of the printer’s dodging Dylan’s face to keep it light enough. The slight imperfection adds a distinct element – almost a message – to the photo. Had Photoshop been present at the time, the
inconvenience of imprecise dodging wouldn’t have been a “problem.”

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