View Full Version : Richard Avedon documentary

03-14-2007, 11:02 AM
I watched a 90 minute documentary on Richard Avedon last night from 1996 (a PBS show - Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light - American Masters: The Artists Series). They went through almost his entire career highlighting several of his famous, and showing many other not so famous, photos. Of the 90 minutes, his interview was probably 30 minutes. There were interviews with several other photographers who worked for him early their careers, art/photography critics, famous people who were shot by him, and not so famous people who were shot by him, as well as voice over that was apparently live recordings of people viewing one of his exhibitions sharing their reactions to his work. In the 90 minutes there was not one mention (including by the photographer himself) of focal lengths, lenses, photographic formats, type of camera, apeture settings, lighting setups, sharpness of this lens or that, etc. There were a couple of oblique references to how he printed some of his photos, as well as his framing/composition technique. But the vast majority of the comments about the work concerned how he captured this quality or that of his subjects. How he was able to elicit an emotional response in his audience by capturing something special in his subjects. And indeed I believe that that's what sets apart much of his work, whether it's a fashion spread for Vogue in the 70's, one of his famous portraits of working people out west in the 90's, or a shot he did of Marilyn Monroe in the late 50's. Many of his photos - esp. the eariler ones - aren't even sharp. Yet they're held up as brilliant by many people.

So what's the point of this post? It's the subject (and subject matter) that matters, esp. in people photos. Is a great photo the one that is most technically proficient - perfect lighting ratios, pin sharp, balanced composition? Or one that evokes in the audience an audible emotional response (gasp) upon viewing (like many of Avedon's mental ward or dying father photos do)? He seems to have captured some aspect of his subject's humanity in many of his photos or at least something that stirs an emotional response in the viewer. (E.g. Natasha Kinski and the snake or the bald guy covered in bees.) But even what should have been an ordinary protrait of British Royalty, he's able to turn into something special/ different - not by choosing a particular lens or lighting setup, but by evoking in his subjects an extraordinary response and capturing it on film.

Food for thought for me at least.

03-14-2007, 11:14 AM
Good post.

03-14-2007, 11:33 AM
Food for thought for each of us I believe.

03-14-2007, 11:42 AM
i agree 100% peter. it's easy to post stuff up on websites and get ripped apart by critics on different camera settings or composition, but i've seen alot of "not so technical" shots by some famous photographers in magazines.

i wish i could find the shot, but in particular this one shot i remember seeing of a table tennis(or ping pong) player doing a high serve. the picture is really grainy and something people on any forum would tear apart....but it's a famous picture.

03-14-2007, 01:30 PM
Funny you should post how important the subject matter is- I had a lengthy discussion about that last night with a friend who is a professional photographer.

I had just studied some of Alfred Stieglitz's works and couldn't for the life of me understand why his work is so hightly praised and he explained how it was based on the time and technology available- that if someone made those same images today they would not be given much praise.

Since he worked as Arnold Newman's first assistant he told me that although Newman was a top artist, the value of his work was the subject matter he's shot. (I'm hoping to purchase one of the prints from his personal collection- an 8x10 portrait of Ansel Adams signed by both Arnold Newman and Ansel Adams.)

03-14-2007, 01:41 PM
Great post Pete! I've been TIVOing that show since the Annie Liebovitz special so I'll bet I have it recorded. Can't wait to watch it. What Avedon did with a person and a plain white background is nothing short of magic!

03-14-2007, 01:55 PM

03-14-2007, 02:26 PM
Yes, good post. I agree. Technical skills are important, but a well trained eye (and being in the right place at the right time) is invaluable.