Most of us are familiar with the photography of Richard Avedon through his career in the fashion industry. He photographed the covers of Vogue magazine beginning in the early 1970s and took photographs for the print advertising campaigns of Versace, Calvin Klein and Revlon. In 1992, he became the first staff photographer at the New Yorker. And when we think of his work, we usually think of his brilliant use of color.
This winter, the Portland Museum of Art is showing a dozen portraits and three triptychs by Avedon, all black and white and all made with a sense of rebellion by the artist, who was feeling trapped by his commercial successes and turned to portraiture to satisfy his desire for greater creative flexibility.
“Richard Avedon: Portraits, 1952 to 1970,” on view through Feb. 17, features images associated with Minneapolis Portfolio series, so-named because the series was published to coincide with the Minneapolis Institute of Art’s 1970 retrospective exhibition about the artist. His subjects include actor Humphrey Bogart, actress Marilyn Monroe, comedians Jimmy Durante and Buster Keaton, poets Ezra Pound and Marianne Moore, President Dwight D. Eisenhower and the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, among others, all from the world of entertainment, politics and art. The three triptychs portray the Chicago Seven counter-culturalists, the artist Andy Warhol and members of his Factory art collective, and the poet Allen Ginsberg and his family.
Avedon, who died in 2004 at age 81, authorized only 35 editions of the series. Judy Glickman Lauder, the Maine-based photographer and collector, owns a complete edition and loaned it to the Portland museum for this exhibition.
For this series, Avedon used an 8-by-10 view camera and placed his subjects against flat backgrounds of white and gray. Here, we get a sense of his sensibilities as an artist and his sensitivities as a human being. In Avedon’s photographs, we see Monroe’s vulnerabilities, Eisenhower’s steel-eyed focus, Bogart’s swagger and Pound’s misery.
As the title of the exhibition suggests, Avedon made these photos over an 18-year-period beginning in the early 1950s. He took all the photographs in his New York studio, inviting the subjects to come to him. That they did suggests the clout that Avedon held during that time, said curator Jaime DeSimone.
These portraits were originally planned to be part of a larger exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, but Avedon accepted an offer to show them and other photographs in Minneapolis because he felt urgency. Being a political person and motivated to act by the war in Vietnam, he was eager to get these images, and in particular a mural-sized portrait of the Chicago Seven, out in the public.
These photographs are not what we have come to expect of Avedon, DeSimone said.
“But they’re beautiful in a different way,” she said. “He’s a photographer we know and love, and he set the bar very high for photographers to come.”
WHERE: Portland Museum of Art, 7 Congress Square
WHEN: On view through Feb. 17; 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; closed Dec. 24-25 and Dec. 31-Jan. 1
ADMISSION: $15 adults, $13 seniors, $10 students; 21 and younger free; 4 to 8 p.m. Fridays free
INFORMATION: portlandmuseumofart.org or (207) 775-6148