Richard Avedon was still hard at work at the age of 81 when he suffered a brain hemorrhage at a shoot in Texas, where he was preparing a photo essay on democracy for The New Yorker; this quintessential Manhattanite died last week at a hospital in San Antonio. He was surely the world's best-known art photographer, but he was always a magazine guy--at Harper's Bazaar (where he started after getting out of the merchant marine in 1944), Vogue and The New Yorker, where, in 1993, he became the first staff photographer.
When word of his death reached NEWSWEEK, for whom he'd shot the 1978 self-portrait below as well as a 1997 cover photo of Bob Dylan, several of us jumped back--heatedly--into the debates that have been going on since 1964, when his edgy book of portraits called "Nothing Personal" appeared, pictures which have now outlived him and will outlive us. Will he be remembered as the re-inventor of fashion photography, who shot his models in both everyday and surreal settings instead of studios and runways, in joyous, sinuous motion instead of static poses? Or the master portraitist who let his subjects, shot in stark black and white, collaborate in their self-presentation--and sometimes, their inadvertent self-subversion? And were those portraits--of mental patients and begrimed lowlifes, of politicians and celebrities--condescending and exploitative, or just straight, unmediated images of these people as they were--that is, as they had chosen to become?
What nobody disputes is that Avedon was a genius. His commercial work (fashion photography, after all, is ultimately at the service of product), is, paradoxically, more formal, esthetic and enigmatic than his portraits, which are direct, approachable, make an immediate emotional impact and lend themselves to simple readings: lowlifes touched with nobility, celebrities exuding corruption, statesmen who are thugs at heart. Which Avedon was truly the artist? Let's say, unequivocally, both. Once seen, an Avedon image is never forgotten: the willowy model Dovima with her flowing sash, adoring--teasing?--chained, pawing elephants, a hairless, naked man swarming with bees, the cloudy-eyed Dwight Eisenhower looking like a death mask, so many more. If the true test of art is indelibility, then what are we even arguing about?