"Avedon was an elitist snob who deliberately set me up…The portrait is foolish, stupid, insulting. It makes me look like a complete idiot" complained Karl Rove, Senior Adviser to President G.W. Bush, after his September, 2004 sitting. Well, duh! What did he expect? Dick's work was certainly well known, even to the White House Intelligence staff. Anyone who willingly stepped in front of his lens was fair game.
The photo in question, on the right, is just one of many in a new exhibition at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. — practically around the corner from the White House. Called Richard Avedon Portraits Of Power, it was timed to coincide with the 2008 Presidential race, and will later move on to other venues.
Most of the photos on exhibit were taken years after I left his employ to start my own business, but some of the most interesting ones date from the period 1952 to 1965, when I was his assistant and later studio manager. My memory of just what happened during the taking of a few of these is recalled herewith:
I was not present during the private weekend sitting with Charlie Chaplin, which happened just days after I first joined the studio as an apprentice at age 18, but I know the story behind it. Hounded by McCarthyism and J. Edgar Hoover's FBI for alleged "un-American activities" (he was politically liberal and a British citizen) Chaplin returned by ship to his native London in September 1952. On his last day in New York, he phoned Avedon and asked him to take a parting photo, complete with a gesture of comic defiance. This Dick did, and it remained one of Avedon's favorite portraits ever.
Taken eleven years later, the photo of a contemptuous, leering George Wallace, segregationist governor of Alabama, was done on November 6, 1963. I did the lighting on that one, and stood by marveling at Dick's ability to manipulate this consummate politician into looking so nasty.
Earlier that year, in March 1963, Dick and I traveled to Atlanta to photograph Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights activists for a forthcoming book, "Nothing Personal." Doctor King was a gracious host at his rather humble house in town, after which we drove to his father's suburban home to do a picture of Dr. King's young son. The following day we photographed a mixed-race civil rights group called SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) (photo, right), led by a young Julian Bond (now head of the NAACP). This was done with a large 8x10 Deardorff camera on an unused highway near Atlanta. No sooner had a few exposures been made then the state police arrived. We had permission to use the road, but they took exception to the subject of the picture and tried to confiscate the film. Fortunately, I had hidden away the exposed holders and let them take what were actually unexposed sheets. They then ordered us to leave town, and escorted us to the airport, where we boarded a plane for New Orleans. The "Downtown Atlanta" traffic sign in the background was later added in the darkroom by me to add context to the picture.
In New Orleans, on March 24, 1963, we headed across the Mississippi River to the town of Algiers to do a portrait of a most interesting old African-American man. William Casby at the time was well over a century old and had been born into slavery on a southern plantation. He was still amazingly strong, had a firm handhake, and single-handedly took care of both his cottage and his ailing wife.
On October 15 1963 we flew down to Washington D.C., rented a car, and drove to Arlington, Virginia. This mission was to photograph George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi Party, and his stormtroopers doing the Hitler salute. This was a very strange experience, and both of us were more than a little nervous. Their headquarters were a bit pathetic, looking like nothing so much as the set for a low-budget remake of Chaplin's classic movie, The Great Dictator. That done, we drove into Washington to do a gathering of the Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution in the ballroom of the Mayflower Hotel. While Avedon was arranging the group of ladies, I pretended (at his request) to be adjusting the camera and lights. What I was actually doing was taking pictures of the ladies getting into position and looking bored. Then Dick took the regular pictures. The one finally chosen for use in the book Nothing Personal was one of those sneaky ones I did, and it does not flatter the subjects.
Another iconic photo from 1963 was the intensely powerful one of black nationalist leader Malcolm X, done in the New York studio on March 27th. For this we used a 1,500-watt floodlight, which I hand-held high and to his right to get maximum contrast, while Dick jerked the camera during exposure, resulting in a truly frightening image (photo, left).
A much gentler soul was photographed on February 4, 1964. This was the evangelist Reverend Billy Graham, who came out looking quite kindly. A few years later I was strolling down Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington when he stepped out of a doorway in front of me. He waved, stopped, and asked me how the pictures came out! What a memory!
In a way, the most memorable session we had was in Palm Springs, California, on January 3, 1964, when Avedon did his famous portrait of former president Dwight D. Eisenhower. Dick wanted very much to impress his Republican hosts and not seem like some wild-eyed leftist, so he booked us into private cottages at the very exclusive Racquet Club. On the day of the sitting we drove to Eisenhower's home on the edge of a golf course, where I set up a white background in a shady spot outdoors on the patio. This provided a soft overall light. The former president was as cordial as could be, and joked as he was positioned in front of Avedon's Rolleiflex TLR camera. On most of the shots he beamed with his trademark smile, but on the chosen one he seems a bit pensive — exactly the effect Dick wanted.
Other photographs in the exhibition that I assisted in the taking of include those of singer Marian Anderson (June 30, 1955), folk singer Bob Dylan (February 10, 1965), poets Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky (December 30, 1963), socialist Norman Thomas (February 24, 1964), Ambassador Adlai Stevenson (November 11, 1963), and author James Baldwin (January 9, 1963).
Avedon went through a significant change of style and approach in the years following my departure, partly due to the reception of his 1964 book Nothing Personal. For quite a while he focused his attention more on fashion and advertising photography.
Gradually he returned to emphasizing portraiture, but with a difference. Gone were the theatrical poses and dramatic lighting, gone were all those little tricks that photographers know all too well. The new direction, which is mostly what this exhibition is about, was very straightforward. Subjects lined up against a plain white background with simple flat lighting, allowing them to reveal as little or as much of their personalities as they wished. In a way, this harkens back to the time during World War II when Avedon was in the Merchant Marine, assigned to taking identification photos of sailors. In other ways, the style often resembles police lineup photos, except that these are of powerful people in politics, defense, commerce, religion, education, and the arts. That is why I call them Mug Shots.
Most of the later photos were taken with a huge, clumsy 8"x10" Deardorff camera instead of his usual Rolleiflex. In a later post I'll explain the thinking behind this.