An American Vision in Avedon’s Viewfinder

The images reflect the unflagging interest of one man in the faces that defined the country and its values for more than half a century
“Santa Monica Beach #4,” Sept. 30, 1963. Photographs by Richard Avedon © The Richard Avedon Foundation

For several months, a scale model of Guild Hall’s galleries has existed on a table in New York City. Arrayed across the Foamcore walls are the tiny faces of world leaders, artists, fashion models, actors, slaughterhouse workers, civil rights leaders, pundits, singers, and more.

Captured by the photographer Richard Avedon, the images reflect the unflagging interest of one man in the faces that defined the country and its values for more than half a century. “Avedon’s America,” the exhibition that today exists only in miniature, will soon grace the actual plaster walls of Guild Hall’s galleries with a gala opening tied to its annual benefit on Aug. 11.

The Richard Avedon Foundation, where the model awaits its final iteration, is on a far western block in the area of the city alternatively known as Clinton or Hell’s Kitchen. James Martin, who was the artist’s assistant before he died in 2004, has been the executive director of the foundation since then.

“We’ve been working with a model of the Guild Hall space for a while. We like to live with the photographs and move around the pairings and groupings,” Mr. Martin said. “The flow and rhythm needs to make sense, and it doesn’t come across right away.”

In a recent tour, he said the building was chosen because it, like Avedon’s studio, was built as a stable and had a similar feel to it. It houses a flood and fireproof archive room where some 500,000 negatives are kept, a sizable archive of prints (the rest are in a storage facility in Arizona where the climate is more stable), and boxes and boxes of notes, daybooks, and other materials related to Avedon’s activities and publications. Upstairs, in Mr. Martin’s office, are the photographer’s cameras, enlarger, backdrops, and other tools of the studio. The building is sleek and modern, dark on its first floor where prints are worked on and displayed, and light and airy in the upstairs offices and conference room.

Mr. Martin not only keeps a physical archive of Avedon’s work and history, he is also a walking, talking repository of information regarding the photographer. The Guild Hall exhibition has been a collaborative effort among Mr. Martin, Christina Strassfield, Guild Hall’s curator, and Andrea Grover, its executive director. The three met recently at the foundation to go over some final plans for the exhibition. Ms. Grover said the photographs they chose either have connections to the East End or have some relationship to current events or the zeitgeist of our time.

“We’re looking at 20th and 21st-century American history through Avedon’s eyes, and images of artists and personalities connected to the area,” Ms. Grover said. Subjects will include civil rights leaders, pioneering figures who broke through historical barriers in several fields, and even Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.

Avedon built a house on the Montauk bluffs in 1980, at the behest of his friend Peter Beard, which he modeled on Home, Sweet Home in East Hampton. Josh Gladstone, who is the director of Guild Hall’s theater, told the curators that Avedon took photographs during one of the performances of the Hamptons Shakespeare Festival, which used to present plays outdoors in Montauk.

Ms. Grover noted that even some of the international figures chosen for the show have indirect relationships to the area. These include the author Samuel Beckett, who was on Avedon’s bucket list of subjects to photograph, but had been elusive. It was Barney Rosset, a longtime East Hampton resident, and a friend and publisher of the author, who heard Avedon discuss his disappointment on the radio and made the introduction. (Rosset is the subject of “Barney’s Wall,” a film to be screened at Guild Hall tonight at 8.)

Beckett only agreed to do the photo shoot with Rosset’s son Beckett, who was named after him. Mr. Martin said Avedon was able to pull off two shots of the author alone when the child ran off after three frames. The resulting diptych with just the author is now iconic. Avedon’s list of other elusive subjects included James Baldwin and Gabriel Garcia Marquez; he eventually achieved those sittings too.

Many people think of Avedon as a fashion photographer, and for years that was his bread and butter. But he also worked in reportage and portraiture — both commissioned and art projects — throughout his career. “He worked at breakneck speed,” Mr. Martin said. “In the course of a day, he would have four to five sittings.” He would move back and forth through fashion, commercial work, a personal project, and portraits. “He was so prolific. How do you have that focus?”

Although he spent his early days in the darkroom, he relied on his assistants to do that work for him for most of his career. “We would print out 12 variants, from dark to light contrast, and present four of the 12 to him,” Mr. Martin recalled. “He would take one, rip it up, and say ‘the ear is perfect. Make the rest of the photograph like the ear.’ Or he would ask ‘Where is the drama?’ They were not the usual instructions photographers gave their assistants.”

After his sitting, Baldwin and Avedon became collaborators on the book “Nothing Personal,” released in 1964. The essays and photographs were critical of America, but hopeful. The book was not well received.

“It was released in an environment not ready for a critical depiction of America,” Mr. Martin said. “Dick loved his country, but felt that in order to love a country you need to point out its flaws.” The book was seen as elitist and inaccurate. “The critics saw Avedon as a wealthy fashion photographer, and said he had no right to say this.” In response, he stopped taking portraits for five years. 

In 1969, he returned with a new stripped-down visual vocabulary that would become his signature style: no artifice, no shadows, the subject more directly interacting with the photographer. He removed his subjects from their environments and took out the distractions. “He responded to the book’s criticism by changing his entire aesthetic, and that of others,” Mr. Martin said.

“Avedon’s America” will be celebrated at Guild Hall’s annual summer gala on Aug. 11 with a preview cocktail party and dinner and dancing to follow at the Devon Colony residence of Lucy and Steven Cookson. A private members panel discussion of the show will take place on Aug. 12 at 4 p.m. with Mr. Martin and Robert M. Rubin. Tickets for the gala are available at the Guild Hall website. Tickets start at $500 for cocktails and $1,200 for dinner with discounts for those between the ages of 21 and 40.

 

“China Mach­ado,” even­ing pajamas by Galitzine, London, Jan. 20, 1965.
“Malcolm X,” civil rights leader, New York, March 27, 1963.