In Avedon's photos, the famous and the unknown are fashionable


We are all top fashion models! A hundred years ago, Walt Whitman claimed that the very ordinariness of people made them part of the "divine average." Twenty-odd years ago, Andy Warhol, master of numb mediocrity, could predict that someday advances in the media would mean that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame -- which is, of course, worse than oblivion.

But Richard Avedon, perhaps the greatest contemporary American photographer, knows that we are all top fashion models. We are not average. We are not numb. We are all dressed in the shocking clothes of the soul. We all wear the latest designer wrinkles. We are all swathed in the highest-priced light. We are all geniuses at posing and selling ourselves. We are all persecuted by our own glamour.

Richard Avedon, at 71, is at the tipsy freezing peak of American fame. He either has it all or he has nothing. For 50 years, he has been famous for taking pictures of the famous and the weird. People magazine loves him as much as New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. The Whitney Museum of American Art has just put on a massive retrospective of Mr. Avedon's often more-than-gigantic photographs; and now Random House, in collaboration with Eastman Kodak, has come out with "Evidence 1944-1994," a kind of catalog-biography to accompany the Whitney exhibition.

While continuing the glittering grind of commercial work for television and magazines, Mr. Avedon has now become the staff photographer for the once staid, now hopped-up New Yorker. In the same tolerant issue, one may see Mr. Avedon's suavely wild ad for "Gianni Versace" clothes alongside his noble portrait of poet W. H. Auden in the snow.

Moreover, just as Mr. Avedon has smashed the Berlin Wall between commercial and "serious" work, so he smashed the wall between past and present, private and public. For the New Yorker is bravely mixing Mr. Avedon's old and new work, his private and public obsessions. Mr. Avedon's images are our images. What he carries in his obsessive head becomes our obsession.

The fashionable becomes our shared nightmare, our shared dream. Is Mr. Avedon the pimp who sells "Calvin Klein" jeans stuffed with Brooke Shields? Is he the side-show barker who presents Natassja Kinski dressed only in a snake? Or is he the Homer who sings of our modern, fatally gorgeous Helens, the current Walt Whitman who swims our tide of contemporary lives? Mr. Avedon may even be our jazz poet of New York who swiftly writes in light. But is he everything or nothing? Is he hot or cold? Is America joy or despair? Is America hot or cold?

For better and for worse, the answer is an energetic yes to all these alternatives, as evidenced by "Evidence 1944-1994." This book, a stupendous commemoration of Mr. Avedon's career, came out practically on D-Day. And his career is a kind of continuous D-Day, a 50-year-long spasm of energy, of explosive strobe light that simultaneously glorifies life and destroys it. Mr. Avedon's camera has been victorious. The beachhead of our age has been successfully stormed by him. His light has caught it all. But what has been caught?

Appropriately enough, the greatest American fashion photographer started his career in the 1940s by photographing the fated faces of thousands of sailors for the merchant marine. To this day, reality for Mr. Avedon is people, not landscape. Energy and gesture is the energy and gesture of limb and face, the harshly tender cosmos of flesh.

Mr. Avedon won his fashion stripes at Harper's Bazaar soon after the war, when its inspiring art director, the legendary Alexy Brodovich, simply told Mr. Avedon to photograph models with the same inventive verve with which he photographed sailors. So Mr. Avedon photographed models with the grandeur and crudity, beauty and silliness of sailors. His models cavorted with elephants and Great Danes, and danced with outrageously indecorous glee through the streets of Paris and Rome. They proved that beauty could be buoyant and hilarious.

Mr. Avedon, with a deeply knowing innocence, knew that models were exuberant human beings who could turn ephemeral clothing styles into joyously fragile wings. The harsh whoredom that shadowed that anxious exuberance could be a motive for grace, for life -- for leaping over Roman fountains and knocking over camera tripods. The victory of post-war materialism could be turned against itself. Materialism could be de-materialized.

So one could become rich and famous by throwing fashion into fashion's face, and even by making fame infamous. (Mr. Avedon would eventually make even Andy Warhol's shooting wounds famous!) But at his happiest, Mr. Avedon turned foolish clothing styles in Harper's Bazaar and Vogue into immortal leaping life. Later, he would turn the giant sadness of impoverished human flesh into astonishing style, world-famous glamour. He learned to treat beggars and outcasts like stars, for they too have created themselves. Their souls also are in the height of fashion.

Mr. Avedon could also turn famous faces into war-torn maps of gashed destiny. Coco Chanel would never forgive him for exposing the writhing coil of her sagging neck flesh. But Charlie Chaplin looked bravely happy to be an aging satyr, with perky forefingers propped like horns against his temples. Mr. Avedon, with ruthless compassion, put on an entire exhibition of huge frontal photographs of his dying father's vastly human face -- intolerably precise and real against the white void that Mr. Avedon so often chooses as existential background. His images can be precise or blurry, grainy or smooth, just as our flesh is both solidly here and as wispy as smoke. But clear or smudgy, his people are always heroically themselves.

The heroism of the poor is not always easy to take, let alone understand. Nothing Mr. Avedon has done has been so denounced as the series of photographs of Westerners he did in the 1980s, lining up their failed, awkward bodies against the famous white void background. He seemed to be saying that the legend of the West had become a freak show, a static lineup of the doomed and soon-to-be-doomed. But, seen in person as any art ought to be seen, these photographs are as rawly glamorous as any of any star. Mr. Avedon took the astonished loneliness of unknown faces and turned it into world-renowned, anguished radiance. Our flesh is the style of our soul. The brilliant message of our wounds makes the latest fashion.

Cold or hot, tender or ruthless, Mr. Avedon continues to trace the intricate glow of our faces. His images of people at the fall of the Berlin Wall are the essence of raw light, of shining anxiety. Yet Mr. Avedon is still the most delightful of New Yorkers. Adam Gopnik, in an charmingly anecdotal essay, follows Mr. Avedon through the streets of New York as the photographer tries to track down a real human being whom he remembered in a kind of dream.

On the way, we learn that Mr. Avedon's first photograph was of his beloved mad sister, which he somehow managed to print on his own forearm. We see his endlessly amiable urge to see, his cheerful clairvoyance, his proud humility, his relentless generosity. Mr. Avedon loves gesture the way abstract expressionists of his generation loved brushwork.

"Evidence," a truly wonderful book that is itself a work of art, ends with a grainy, smoky, awkward hand being raised up in giant loneliness. It is, I think, the hand of a madwoman in an earlier Avedon photograph, blown up and focused upon. It is the very pain of light, the hurt of glory.

Drawn from Mr. Avedon's private archive, published books, and his photographic career, "Evidence" is almost indescribably interesting. It is proof that Mr. Avedon, like Walt Whitman, "sings the body electric." As Whitman himself said: "And if the body does not do fully as much as the soul? And if the body were not the soul, what is the soul?"

TH Mr. Margulies is a poet and a curator at the University of Virginia.

Title: "Evidence, 1944-1994"

Author: Photographs by Richard Avedon; essays by Jane Livingston and Adam Gopnik; edited by Mary Shanahan

Publisher: Random House/Eastman Kodak

Length, price: 183 pages, $50

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