The choreography of posture, the rhythm of gestures, the ambiguity of the empty white spaces, evoke the sequential panels of a classical frieze, “as if the figures progressing around the belly of a Greek vase had paused for the photographer’s camera,” Maria Morris Hambourg, then the curator of photography at the Metropolitan Museum, wrote in 2002.
Avedon would make two more mural-size group portraits — including “The Mission Council, Saigon, April 27, 1971,” and “Allen Ginsberg’s Family” — within three years, reflecting a new level of rigorous artistic intention. Yet the art world did not grant full acknowledgment to the “celebrity photographer” as the consequential artist he was until the end of his life. He died in 2004.
The photographer Dawoud Bey, an eminence in the field today who has made the Black figure an abiding presence in his portraits, remembers seeing the large Avedon portraits when they were first shown at Marlborough Gallery. “They made a strong impression on me, more so than I would have been able to even articulate at the time, since I was just starting out,” he said, adding, “Avedon is a part of my DNA.”
Katy Grannan, whose portraits today take the genre forward from Avedon, as well as from Diane Arbus, said that while Avedon was not an early influence, he has become one. “He wasn’t a photographer we talked about in graduate school,” she said. “In hindsight, this is probably because he broke an unwritten rule. You could be a fine art photographer, a photojournalist, or a celebrity photographer, but you couldn’t be all three. Avedon was everything.”
But Avedon endured several art-world prejudices in his lifetime: the lingering attitude about photography as a second-class medium stuck in the graphic arts, and, equally, the church and state divide between art and commerce that heaped scorn on the gloss of Avedon’s fashion work. On top of that, “street photography” was ascendant in curatorial circles and it would not be until the beginning of this century that “studio” photography was given equal stature in critical thinking about photographic practice. Only at the end of his career was Avedon’s portraiture no longer dismissed as a stylized formula but understood as an artistic signature that advanced the genre in more sweeping art historical terms.