Avedon’s America On View at Guild Hall
By Michelle Trauring
There is one thing Andy Warhol, Janis Joplin, Marilyn Monroe, William Casby and Donald Trump all have in common.
At one time or another, they all found themselves sitting in front of a camera, with Richard Avedon behind it.
Whether it was intentional at the time or not, the famed photographer captured six decades of history — from the Civil and Women’s Rights Movements, to the Vietnam War, to the current political climate in the United States today — as well as pioneering figures in the performing, visual and literary arts.
And he did it all with certain style, according to Christina Strassfield, museum director and chief curator at Guild Hall, which will unveil “Avedon’s America,” a series of 39 black-and-white portraits, on Saturday in East Hampton.
“We have wanted to work with Avedon for quite a while,” she said. “I think we’re going through a bizarre time right now, politically, and this show is showing a microcosm of society. We’re getting people from all over and all different groups. I think that’s very important because that’s what we’re composed of. And we should celebrate all the groups within America. We thought it would make people think a little bit.”
Avedon was 22 years old when he started building his portfolio — first as a freelance photographer on the fashion circuit, and then in more unconventional locations, such as the circus, the beach and in nightclubs. As the years ticked on, he developed a signature look in his portraits: a black-and-white image often paired with a white or grey backdrop that had a knack for capturing his subject’s personality, and telling a story.
“It’s an interesting connection that he made with each one of his sitters, or it comes across as being an interesting connection he made with them,” Strassfield said. “I think he had a wonderful eye and he was very innovative with the fashion work, taking things out of doors, having models running and leaping. These were all things that were basically his innovation. He was iconic, and he was the first person to be hired by The New Yorker as a photographer on staff.”
He was also one of the first of his kind to elevate photography to a fine art, explained Strassfield, who saw his work for the first time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1978.
“I was in high school at the time and I remember seeing that show and really being blown away for two reasons,” she said. “It was the first major photography show that I had seen in a museum, and in the exhibition, they had these large-scale portraits that he did, and they were printed on really large paper — I want to say, 6 foot across by 10 feet. They were hanging from the tops of the Met’s really tall galleries. And I felt they were so impressive, the quality of the images and the way they were displayed in such a unique and unusual way. And they weren’t all of fashion. They were portraits, and there were so many ideas flowing through it all.”
The photographer would work up until the year he died, Strassfield said. It was 2004, and he was 81.
“Before Avedon, photography was sort of segregated as a secondary art form and, obviously, when you hear ‘Avedon’ and you think ‘fashion,’” she said. “But he was photographing people like William Casby, who was born into slavery and had lived through so much and had seen so many changes going on in the world around him, and you think about that.
“We wanted to make the exhibit equal. You name it, we’ve got it,” she continued. “We have Bill O’Reilly and we have Jon Stewart. We have Hillary Clinton and we have Donald Trump. We have the man who was a head of the Nazi party and Toni Morrison, or Malcolm X. We’re really trying to show the microcosm of everything that was happening at that time, and is still happening here.”
“Avedon’s America” will be on view starting Saturday, August 12, at Guild Hall in East Hampton. The exhibit will remain on view through October 9. Admission is free. For a full list the programming surrounding the exhibit, call (631) 324-0806, or visit guildhall.org.