When photography is dishonest

“All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” – Richard Avedon

I came across this ambiguous and mysterious quote from Richard Avedon while searching for portrait ideas for a project I will be starting soon. It was Avedon’s portraiture that I turned to for inspiration.

The iconic photographer had a long and successful career as a fashion photographer, while also building a huge body of portrait work of actors, celebrities, the famous and the not-so-famous. At the end of his life, with worldwide adulation safely in hand, he pulled away from the glamour world that had made him famous, and chose instead to photograph more everyday subjects. In one case he applied his distinctive “minimalist” style to his aging father; in another, he spent time in the American West, photographing miners, poor families, and sundry other subjects.

There is stark contrast in his treatment of the famous and the ordinary of human existence. With some exceptions, his portraits of celebrities are what I would call “respectful”: he clearly intends to leave the viewer with a positive impression of the subject. Whether the subject is a grizzled old actor, or a beautiful young actress, his camera is revealing in a pleasant way; the picture makes you wonder about the interior soul of the subject. There is no sense that Avedon is trying to steer your emotions about the person, or put another way, impose his values onto the portrait.

But now let’s turn to the work of his later years, particularly the American West series. In his minimalist style, straight on poses against a plain white background, we are presented with the polar opposite of his New York celebrity work. It is unmistakeable: the ordinary people in front of his lens are deliberately made to look degraded. Miners are shown just as they emerge from the grime of the mine, their bodies coated with black dust, their faces black, and their expressions too. Images of mothers holding their children are devoid of any beauty, the faces of both clearly implying great misery and depression. No one is happy, no one is smiling, the pictures are relentlessly gloomy. As a body of work, the intent is clear: these are people of a lower order. Their lives, their existence, is miserable, and he wants to make that clear.

It is only in seeing the contrast of the two phases of his photographic career that the essential dishonesty of his work shoots out at you. Celebrities are the beautiful people, their lives “work”, and they deserve to be admired, even worshipped. But his everyday people, well, they are almost disgusting, or at best pitiable.

This kind of thing has been going on for a long time in the creative arts. It has become a world of celebrity worship, combined with deliberate contempt for the dignity of everyday people going about their lives. I don’t see it ending anytime soon.

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