A HANGING AT THE SMITHSONIAN
Relax. It was only pictures that we hung that night in 1962, but what pictures they were! I had just become studio manager for the famous New York photographer Richard Avedon, who was invited to mount an exhibition of his works in the Smithsonian Institution's historic Arts and Industries Building, a grand Victorian structure of 1881 just east of their original "castle" on Washington's Mall.
Work on this project began a few months earlier, with Avedon making a selection of photos to exhibit. All of these were in black & white, and had to be printed in a size about three feet wide by three to five feet long. The studio darkroom was incapable of handling anything this large, so we made arrangements to use the facilities of Modernage's mural service on New York's Lexington Avenue at 47th Street.
Avedon was famous for the quality of his prints, which was in part due to his use of Agfa Brovira enlarging paper. This German product had unusually rich blacks and brilliant whites, with long extended tones of grey in between. It was available in sheet form here in America, but for this project we needed it in meter-wide long rolls, in a variety of contrast grades. These had to be specially ordered from the Agfa factory in Leverkusen, across the Rhine from Cologne, Germany.
Once the paper arrived, Avedon and I worked together in the Modernage mural darkroom, using a horizontal enlarger and long, deep trays of chemicals. I was actually surprised at how knowledgeable he was about darkroom procedures — in the years that I knew him he always had someone else (often me!) do this work.
Once the prints were made, the folks at Modernage mounted them on heavy boards, crated these, and shipped them to the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
On the day of the hanging, Avedon, myself, and an associate photographer named Hiro Wakabayashi flew down to Washington, checking into the Marriott Hotel in Arlington, Virginia. Later that day we went to the site and decided where each print should be hung. The actual hanging, of course, was done by Smithsonian staff. Hiro made a documentary film of the event, which I don't recall ever seeing. Many hours later the exhibition was completed to Avedon's satisfaction, so it was off to a late night dinner, rest, and a morning flight back to New York.
UPDATE: Around 2012 I saw Hiro's film at the Avedon Foundation in NYC.
Photography's Golden Age ended long ago but remains very much alive in my memory. From 1952 through 1965 I assisted Avedon during his most creative period, and do I ever have the stories to tell! Now, at the end of 2015, is the time to reveal all, while I'm still alive and kicking. Tales of personalities, motivations, intrigues, and even the fine details of how it was all done.
What I need to make this a reality is a co-conspirator to aid in getting the whole, true, uncensored story published -- either as a book, an e-boo, or even a documentary.
Anyone interested? Leave a comment and I'll get back to you.