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Richard Avedon @ the Art Gallery of WA

– by David Charlesworth

In art there are masters that you absolutely cannot miss, Richard Avedon is one of these.

At the Art Gallery of WA one of the great masters of photography will be on display until November 17.In an exhibition entitled Richard Avedon People, 80 works from his more than 60 years in photography are on display. Richard Avedon’s name stands with masters like Van Gogh and Picasso, the latter of whom even has a portrait in the exhibition.

In the world of art these are the name’s you see even if you have no affinity for the medium, you can recognise it is worth seeing the work of a master at his art. Avedon was renowned for his black and white portraits with minimal lighting on a stark white background using an 8X10 camera, a style he maintained throughout his career.

New York, July 23, 1969
Top of the page: Marilyn Monroe, actress, New York, May 6, 1957.  Above: Richard Avedon, photographer, New York, July 23, 1969. All Avedon Works. © The Richard Avedon Foundation. Used by permission.

He died while on assignment documenting the 2004 Democratic Primary in Texas. The exhibition shows all facets of his career from his famous series on the American west in the 80’s to his covering of the civil rights movement in the 60’s. Some interesting inclusions are the photos from his family, showing a glimpse on the other side of the lense.

Avedon documented moments in history, momentous and minor, showing a deep care for portraying the people behind the bare images, to the emotions underneath. Certainly the most fascinating was the photo of a former slave taken in the 1960’s. It startled me to see not only an image of someone from so distant a time but such a clarity you could see the history in his lined face.

Also included is the famous image of Marilyn Monroe looking pensive, contrasted with a laughing portrait with then-husband playwright Arthur Miller. It was interesting to see the difference between the face she showed around people and the one she carried in private.

There were some certainly daring photos for their time, for instance the nude portrait of poets Peter Orlanovsky and Alan Ginsberg taken in 1963 at a time when homosexuality was illegal in almost all US states.

Some of my favourites are from a series commissioned by Life magazine on the New York street life in 1963, for which he returned the advance for and kept, only being published in a book years later. They are as much history as the celebrities, but as their names are unknown we can only imagine their stories. They say when you look at a man’s work it tells you as much about the man as the story it intends. That is evident in this amazing look at the career of one of the most important photographers of the last century.

This exhibition captured a century through Richard Avedon’s lense, but in its entirety is a portrait of him.

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