But at 19, making mug shots for ID cards for months on end, the poet manqué was still unfulfilled. “I must have taken pictures of maybe 100,000 baffled faces before it ever occurred to me that I was becoming a photographer,” he would later reflect. These quotidian images were pared down to portraiture’s essentials out of necessity: heads and shoulders presented against a seamless white background with one direct source of light. Despite the work’s repetitive nature, its influence can be felt in Avedon’s distinctive later style, in his painstaking scrutiny of faces and expressions.
His portraits are intimate close-ups that reveal every blemish and nuance of physiognomy with an uncompromising, even brutal, honesty. The frontality of his composition and his very lack of “style” set him apart from the majority of his contemporaries, with the exception of his friend Diane Arbus. Between them, they discarded the conventions of the first 100-odd years of portrait photography and, by reducing it to its core, redefined what the essence of portraiture should be. Their subjects stand alone, uneasy and isolated – revealing something intimate and essential about their characters in the process.
This is as true of his first works as his final ones, composed more than half a century apart. An early photograph, from 1947, shows a smiling boy in Noto, Sicily, facing the viewer with his hands resolutely by his sides. The sparse background, barely in focus, is dominated by a tree, its mushroom-shaped branches resembling nothing so much as the aftermath of a nuclear detonation. One of his last portraits was also of a child, his godson Luke Avedon, another young man confronting the world alone. Except he isn’t smiling, and behind him there is a white out – nothing at all.
And yet if Avedon’s harshly seductive outlook was remarkably consistent from 1947 to 2003, his sources of inspiration were innumerable. His journey has its roots in theatre. In 1949, he spent several months as the associate art director of Theatre Arts Magazine. His short tenure served a purpose: focussing his mind on pursuing talents that could interpret something of the human condition through the roles they played. Buster Keaton’s desperate Vaudeville gestures dissolve easily into the existential anguish of Bert Lahr’s Estragon in Waiting for Godot. Avedon’s subsequent scrutiny of fame emphasised its bleakest manifestations: Michelangelo Antonioni is delivered to us half-paralysed from a stroke, Marilyn Monroe is at her most wounded and remote, Ezra Pound is seen in the grip of mania, while the head of Chet Baker, sunken by addiction, barely hovers in the frame at all, as if shortly to slip from view.
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