Richard Avedon (2)

Writing about Richard Avedon last week reminded me that I had been photographed by him at the time of the exhibition and I remembered that I had written about the experience, but never published it.   I wondered whether I could locate what I had written.   I could.   Here it is, unedited, a document of a particular moment and what it was like:-

The message on the answering machine was that we were to present ourselves at a studio somewhere in Clapham at eleven o’clock on Tuesday morning.   After a weekend in Dorset and a long week ahead making the final arrangements for the opening of the Richard Avedon retrospective at the National Portrait Gallery, I had not expected to accommodate being photographed by him as well;  but ever since we had first met after the opening of his exhibition in Cologne and he had discovered that I was the younger brother of the proprietor of Heywood Hill, the Curzon Street bookshop where he had been a customer since the late 1940s, he had had it in mind that he would like to take a photograph of the two of us.   He had been encouraged in this thought by Nicole Wisniak, the editor of L’Egoiste, an expensive and very grand French photographic magazine;  she wanted to run an article on us.

So, at half past ten on Tuesday morning I picked my brother up in a taxi from his shop.   We got to the studio with great ease and were ushered into a large, black, completely neutral room dominated by the studio set-up of lights and white background.   Avedon was the master of ceremonies.   Coffee was served.   In the line before us was Kazuo Ishiguro, who was being photographed for a profile in the New Yorker.   We talked of Ishiguro’s forthcoming book and the process of publication and pre-publicity.   Avedon asked me to come into the dressing room in order to show him the extra clothes which Nicole Wizniak had suggested I should bring.   Then he set to work.

Kazuo Ishiguro was asked to enter the arena of the studio set-up.   He did so with admirable casualness and ostensible lack of self-consciousness.   He had come in a perfectly nondescript mackintosh with a long, red, woolly scarf, wrapped around his neck.   It was regarded as the perfect expression of who he was, because the symbolism of clothes – as is obvious for someone who has worked for so much of his life as a fashion photographer – is clearly important to Avedon.

Ishiguro stood there with his feet on the little cross of black masking tape, quite cool in the blaze of studio lights.   Avedon stood just to the left of the large plate camera.   He talked, making one or two fastidious suggestions about pose.   Then he suggested that Ishiguro might lift his hand.   Ishiguro lifted his hand in a twist of exceptional elegance.   He has unusually long fingers.   The pose was right.   The picture was taken.   The expression was in the movement of the hand, the machinery of Ishiguro’s writing.

I have thought about this experience a lot in the course of the week in which the exhibition opened, because it has helped me interpret the photographs which Richard Avedon has taken during a lifetime beside the camera.   He has been accused by journalists of cruelty.   It does not seem to me to be cruel to adopt a method of such subtle coaxing of the sitter to reveal an expressive characteristic.   My sense is that he works with a genuinely eclectic curiosity about different types of people, who they are, what they represent, what they wear, how they want themselves to be recorded, and then, pop, pop, pop, they achieve a form of mildly idealised immortality.

One of the criticisms of the exhibition has been that the photographs show too strong a sense of control.   This seems to me to be a ridiculous criticism.   Of course, they are about control.   They are about the reduction of the complex means of photographic composition into one click.   He removes his sitters out of their world, out of their environment, and into a position of formal abstraction.   Then he allows them to settle down into being who they are, but rather more intensively, because they have nothing around them in support and so are reliant entirely on the marks of age, the lines on their face, an expression;  and, of course, the ability of the viewer to read intensively character into an isolated face.   I would say that his photographs achieve a remarkable degree of control over the vocabulary of his art, which is a compliment.   It derives from a democracy of interest in the potential of any single individual, whether they are a bank manager who is an amateur apiarist or an abdicated king or a fashion model, to be rather more than what they are.

It was our turn next.   We were much more difficult as sitters, being far from relaxed.   Also, I don’t think that I have ever stood so close to my much older brother so that our cheeks were nearly touching.   Nor would I normally expect him to straighten my tie.   I stood there, looking, I gathered from Richard Avedon afterwards, as if England had just lost India, while my brother was asked to adjust his pose constantly, so that it was different for every picture, hand under cheek, on cheek, nearly but not quite picking his nose.   The effort was to get the picture to work and it was strenuous for everyone.   I did once smile, but was told not to show my teeth, which are a monument to 1950s dentistry.   How many pictures were taken ?  I lost count.   At the end, he took my pulse.   My hand was sweating.

Of course, it is a moment of theatre, trying to express a lifetime of common, but different experience, where the viewer has nothing to indicate any blood relationship, although I suppose it is physiognomically evident.   In the end, he is going to select the only moment when I was smiling, in spite of the teeth.   My brother is grimacing, because I think he found the whole experience almost as bad as I did;  but then we were not born to be photographed, nor do we have much previous experience of it.

Then we drove back to the Connaught.   Ever since I have felt that I have been subject to an art which is half voodoo and I mean that as a compliment as well.

Charles and John Saumarez Smith for Egoiste, London, March 21, 1995_web.jpg

Photograph by Richard Avedon, © The Richard Avedon Foundation

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7 thoughts on “Richard Avedon (2)

  1. Oh, how frustrating! Your description of the photo session is so vivid, but we don’t even know if you were standing or sitting — only how close you were to your brother, and your diverging expressions. Perhaps you could ask a few artist friends to do a sketch of the photograph as they imagine it, then compare the different versions?
    By the way, I’m sure you don’t know who I am, but I have been following your blog since we met at Jane Defalbe’s 90th birthday luncheon in October. I’m the American whose family Sophy stayed with in New York in 1977-78, when she went to school with my daughter as an English Speaking Union exchange student. We’ve visited back and forth with the Defalbe family over the years, and were delighted to have the opportunity to catch up with so many members of the family at Jane’s 90th. And of course, meeting you at lunch, where we talked with Sophy’s brother Freddy about the challenges of being a headmaster at a boarding school, was an extra bonus!

  2. What a very perceptive and descriptive account of the whole experience. I can almost imagine what the photo looked like. Great pity it’s been lost….or will you find it?

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