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Arts & Culture

Richard Avedon: Relationships at Palazzo Reale

Reading time: 4 minutes

The temporary exhibition will be kept on display inside Palazzo Reale’s grand exhibition rooms until the 29th of January 2023. The exhibition is organized by Palazzo Reale and Skira Editore. It is coordinated in partnership with the Center for Creative Photography of Tucson and the Richard Avedon Foundation which together have contributed to the entirety of the 106 photographs displayed inside the galleries. 

Inside the exhibition, Richard Avedon: Relationships, the visitor will meander timelessly through a collection of 106 photographs taken by Richard Avedon, one of the great masters and innovators of 20th century photography. The exhibit unveils the incredible range of subjects Avedon captured on film during his lifetime. They span from celebrity portraits to the fashion shoots the artist’s most notorious work is from. Indeed, for the greater part of his career Avedon worked in partnership with highly renowned haute couture brands, one of them being Versace, and with plenty of famed fashion magazines, such as Harper’s Bazar and Vogue. In 1959, Avedon published his first photobook, “Observations”, which carried an essay by Truman Capote. In 1964, “Nothing personal”, another of Avedon’s photobooks, would be published along with a text by James Baldwin. In 1992, Avedon became the first staff photographer to be hired at the New Yorker magazine, for which he worked until his death in 2004. 

But Avedon’s beginnings as a photographer were set against a much more utilitarian background when in 1942, he enlisted as Photographer’s Mate Second Class in the US Merchant Marines. His job, consisting of having to take identity pictures, would pave the way for his work as a portrait photographer. During this time, the Merchant Marine’s magazine, The Helm, published some of his sailor portraits. It was in this revelatory profession that Avedon himself would later describe: “I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me, I was becoming a photographer.” 

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How could Avedon go from photographing hundreds of faces every day to being defined as the essential piece of the artistic vision of Versace’s campaigns? The answer is embedded in his photographs, in the way he manages to seep relationships, and the correlated feelings, into both ordinary and baroquely surreal moments. A garment in a fashion shoot becomes a means for self-expression, the cloth garners a life of its own, it is personified in the way it affects the model who is wearing it. In Avedon’s portraits, ranging from Marylin Monroe to Malcom X, one common line is distinguishable: the intent to portray a person, with their visible emotions and figurative scars, and not an ideal they should stand for in the public eye. This way the audience is presented with intimate portraits rather than proud faultless imagery of celebrities our modern eye may be more accustomed to. Whether imbued in strength, energy or heaviness of spirit, Avedon’s pictures describe with extreme ease the humanity of elegance: they are a snapshot of existence taken as is. 

Elegance in Avedon’s artistry is not a synonym of perfection, but it is the elevation of the feelings that escape the masked subconscious. Avedon’s approach to photography for which his motto was: “I am almost always stimulated by people. Almost never by ideas,” is undoubtably the freeing element in his pictures. Undying in his portraits is, just like a signature, Avedon’s humble realization that one snapshot in time cannot encompass the multiplicity of a human spirit but should focus on the emotions that escape on the surface.

Within the exhibition, great care is taken to relay Avedon’s use of relationships as mediums to construct an image and their propensity to induce emotions. Just like the interplay between black and white in Avedon’s monochrome portraits, wherein one opposite color spurs the other’s intensity, feelings are intentionally intensified when put in contrast with each other. This is particularly clear, and exploited, in the layout of the exhibition. In most of his portraits Avedon experiments to understand the differing reaction to a camera when an individual is alone against when, instead, he or she is photographed with someone else; often a spouse.

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The most moving example of this are the portraits of Michelangelo Antonioni, an Italian film director whom in 1985 suffered a stroke which left him partially paralyzed and without speech. Two portraits are set side by side inside one of the exhibition rooms, one shot in 1993 and one 1999, respectively the first of Antonioni with his wife, whom after the stroke supported and enabled his return to film direction, and the latter without her. Yet, the two neighboring pictures portray a starkly metamorphosed man. In the depiction of Antonioni on his own, the director is in a sitting stance, and seems to give into the power of the camera, gazing in a tired, inquisitive stare. While instead with his wife next to him a new light is registered in the director’s eyes, it is as if the passion and love captured in this picture are alone accountable for the subject’s newfound strength that sees him standing, proud, next to his wife. Both evocative pictures, interact in the retelling of a man, whom like any person, was heterogeneously impossible to pin down in one photogram as his entirety of being or feeling.  

Why do we perceive the experience of going to see an exhibition as light years apart from that of going to a concert or to the cinema? The set-up is the same, holding for a varying spectrum of social norms, the same magic is evoked when a group of strangers is transported by a story or a feeling. Surely, on most occasions, there is less dancing around in an art gallery. But it would be in complete conformity with the goal of this exhibition to highlight the relationships binding together the visitors, squeezing in front of a black and white picture, the picture’s subject(s), and its photographer.

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At the base for our intense fascination with Richard Avedon’s pictures is his extraordinary ability to tell a story singularly by the layering of relationships. Just like through invisible strings, an intersecting dance of gazes flows between the picture’s subject(s) and the camera resulting in the creation of a singular performance for the assembled onlookers. Never does Avedon undermine the exposed gash an artwork leaves over its artist’s subconscious, he states that “[his] portraits are more about [him] than they are about the people [he] photograph[s]”. If the photographer, despite being hidden away from the camera lens, as we (the audience) are, can discover something about himself in his pictures, it is just as likely that in our gazing we are being told something about ourselves. That is for us, the audience, to decide. 

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