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Matinee: 'Richard Avedon -- Darkness and Light' Share This on LinkedIn   Share This on Google   Tweet This   Forward This

5 July 2014

Saturday matinees long ago let us escape from the ordinary world to the island of the Swiss Family Robinson or the mutinous decks of the Bounty. Why not, we thought, escape the usual fare here with Saturday matinees of our favorite photography films?

So we're pleased to present the fortieth in our series of Saturday matinees today: Richard Avedon -- Darkness and Light.

This hour-and-a-half film from the American Masters Series was produced by PBS in 1995. It's the fastest hour and half we've spent in a while.

It begins with Avedon hanging a show. "To be an artist, to be a photographer, you have to nurture the things that most people discard," he says. "You have to keep them alive in order to tap them."

A narrator quickly gets you up to speed on Avedon, his career and his importance as you look at some of his signature images. Then a series of voices, a technique used throughout the film like a Greek chorus, describe his work.

He arrived in Paris just after World War II to shoot fashion. But fashion to Avedon is not superficial. It is civilization. It's what Whistler painted.

"There was no sleeping," he remembers. "You worked around the clock -- and then went out dancing."

The model Dorian Leigh Parker describes his approach. Whereas fashion models previously posed like statues, Avedon danced with you, she says.

But he eventually turned against the world of fashion photography. His portraits and photojournalism let him exercise his artistic ambitions.

The story of Nastassia Kinski's snake shot will take your breath away. It was set up in the studio but could not have been posed. You won't be surprised it sold two million copies as a poster.

But the face is what he was always interested in, he says. He looks for contradiction in a face. Complexity. In the end, there's nothing but the face.

John Lahr talks about his father's portrait. Avedon dressed him as Samuel Beckett's clown Estragon from Waiting for Godot and the normally taciturn Bert Lahr came alive. Looking at the contact sheets from that session, his son breaks down, unable to continue the interview.

There are many celebrities in the portfolio of this childhood autograph collector. But they are not glamor shots. Dorothy Parker's portrait is a mug shot. The bags under their eyes. A face ravaged by life. It's almost cruel.

He always shot his portraits against a white background without props. But he wasn't against playing tricks on his subjects.

Avedon describes watching Wallis Simpson and Edward, Duke of Windsor, every night at the casino in Nice. He did their portrait in their hotel room where they put on "their Ladies' Home Journal cover faces on," hiding everything he had seen at the casino.

He had to trick them to bring out the sense of loss rather than their vanity. So he told them his taxi had run over a dog and their faces dropped their masks.

He tells stories about his portraits of Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe but they are "never not a self portrait," the photographer Gregory Heisler suggests. "You're seeing him."

The features of these faces became the clay of his art. They were not photos of the subject but the work of the photographer.

This talks an uncomfortable turn when Avedon photographs his father at the end of his life. But not uncomfortable for Avedon. It's his work. And the story, which ends with a letter in a jacket pocket, casts its own light.

He has the sense that "I didn't take the photographs. They have a life of their own," he says.

Shortly after, the film ends -- but we came across an impressive little app that will let you explore Avedon's work more deeply.

Avedon is a free iPad app that puts his portraits, fashion shots and reportage at your fingertips. There is also some biographical material to explore. But what we really liked was the way the galleries let you explore the images, enlarging them so you can really appreciate them.

There's more there than meets the eye.

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