Avedon on Avedon

‘I once went to Washington for what they call a “photo opportunity” with Henry Kissinger. As I led him to the camera, he said a puzzling thing. He said, “Be kind to me.” I wish there had been time to ask him exactly what he meant, although it’s probably clear. Now, Kissinger knows a lot about manipulation, so to hear his concern about being manipulated really made me think. What did he mean? What does it really mean to “be kind” in a photograph? Did Kissinger want to look wiser, warmer, more sincere than he suspected he was? Do photographic portraits have different responsibilities to the sitter than portraits in paint or prose? Isn’t it trivializing and demeaning to make someone look wise, noble (which is easy to do), or even conventionally beautiful when the thing itself is so much more complicated, contradictory, and therefore fascinating? Was he hoping that the photograph would reveal a perfect surface? Or is it just possible that he could have wished – as I would have if I were being photographed – that “being kind” would involve allowing something more complicated about me to burn through: my anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, my isolation. If all these things are aspects of character, would I not, as an artist, be unkind to treat Kissinger as a merely noble face? Does the perfect surface have anything to do with the artistic integrity of a portrait?

A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he’s being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he’s wearing or how he looks. He’s implicated in what’s happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. The way someone who’s being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer’s response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about. The philosopher Roland Barthes once said a very wise thing about photography. He said, “Photography is a captive of two intolerable alibis. On the one hand, ‘ennobled art pictures.’ On the other hand, ‘reportage’ which derives its prestige from the object. Neither conception is entirely correct.” He said, “Photography is a Text, a complex meditation on meaning.” ‘

Richard Avedon

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