A show of Richard Avedon’s photographs opens today at the International Center for Photography. In its honor I went looking for some of his work to comment on, but I didn’t want it to be too obvious, like one of the best known fashion images or celebrity portraits. So here you go: Avedon himself in 1980. It’s a striking portrait of a man rarely in front of a camera, though fifty years ago Avedon told Truman Capote that
Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is, how would you say, well, the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may be simply my own.
What struck me first about this image was, of course, the waving, unfocussed hands. It reminds me, though obliquely, of a photograph by Julia Margaret Cameron of Vivien and Merlin, the sorcerer (below). In it Cameron shows Vivien in the moment after casting a spell to “beguile” Merlin and immobilize him. Vivien’s hand is extended and her finger points. She is in the very act of making magic. Avedon, too, is in the very act of making magic, the creative transformation of reality into a frozen frame. His waving hands frame his own face, reinforcing the metaphor. In both cases the moving hands produce stillness through a kind of alchemy. Both photographers, too, seem to be insisting that photography is an art: it requires more than an eye and a camera; it is hand-made and original. Those are big claims for photography, especially when Cameron made them in the 1860s and 1870s. Stieglitz photographed Georgia O’Keeffe’s hands. Avedon photographed Isak Dinesen’s hands….Are all photographers obsessed with hands? The hand provides the signature, one definition of individuality in our society. We think of portraitists like Avedon and Cameron as defining selves by revealing faces, but here hands speak for the self too. They defy our assumption that portraits should be “psychological.”