Avedon. Only one name was ever necessary. On Dec. 9, “(re) Framing Conversations: Photographs by Richard Avedon, 1946–1965” will debut at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Twenty Richard Avedon images spanning two decades, curated from the Smithsonian’s extensive photo history collection, will be on display in the exhibition through fall 2023.
Avedon (1923–2004) was one of the 20th century’s most influential photographers. He first made his mark in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar. Magazines such as Look, Life, The New Yorker and Esquire followed, with covers, advertisements and editorial features.
Fame gave him a platform, and photography gave him a medium. Initially associated with high fashion and high society, Avedon moved seamlessly in and out of Manhattan’s social echelons from uptown to downtown, yet he was emotionally and professionally invested in cultural awareness, social and political issues, impact and authenticity.
“(re) Framing Conversations” will invite visitors to travel throughout the exhibition in a direction of their choosing. The themes of Music, Weddings, Change, Fear, Women’s Words and Your Moral Compass will allow audiences the ability to connect personal experience with the historical content presented throughout.
“As a history museum holding a vast and exceptional collection of photography, we are pleased to reveal how fine art provides a key lens to understand and explore the nation’s complicated history,” said Anthea M. Hartig, the museum’s Elizabeth MacMillan Director. “The visual impact and experience of Avedon’s photographs capture some of the cultural and social tensions of the era through the mass media platform of magazines which he used masterfully as one of the nation’s culturemakers.”
Avedon’s distinctive portraits with their plain white backgrounds include an offering of not only the instantly recognizable, but also those who are remarkable in other ways—good and otherwise. His subjects trusted his energy and truth and allowed him to look beyond their appearances to discover a more authentic version of themselves. All his subjects influenced—and were influenced by—their time and culture.
The activist and author James Baldwin and Avedon both attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx where they edited the school’s literary magazine. By the mid-1960s, Baldwin became one of America’s most important writers, and, in 1964, Avedon approached Baldwin to contribute an essay to Avedon’s 1964 book, Nothing Personal. Avedon followers will recognize some of the images from the book on the walls of the “(re) Framing Conversations” exhibition. Bridging the space between 1960s fashion and political activism, Baldwin’s essay, “Letter from a Prisoner” accompanied by Avedon’s portrait of him, appeared in a 1963 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.
“After WWII and before television’s wide popularity, magazines were important modes of visual transmissions,” said Shannon Perich, curator of the photographic history collection. “Avedon’s photographs and his own presence in print culture propelled, changed and shaped the ways that readers understood ideas about portraiture, celebrity, power and emotions. He channeled his own ideas and concerns about American culture through his photographs which gives us a means to explore historical questions that continue to resonate with us today, from easier ones like, ‘What music moves you?’ to the more difficult, ‘How long does change take?’”
About (Some) of the Subjects
· Nation of Islam and civil rights leader Malcolm X was often followed and scrutinized in magazines and newspapers. Evangelical preacher Billy Graham advised many American presidents starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower.
· William Casby, born into slavery, had been legally free for decades when Avedon took his portrait in 1963. Yet, what did freedom mean to politicians like Alabama’s Governor George Wallace, who worked to keep segregationist and racist laws and policies in place?
· Poet and satirist Dorothy Parker, known for her biting humor, received a spot on the blacklist after her name appeared in the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA)-inspired pamphlet Red Channels.
· Avedon captured the day silent film star Charlie Chaplin, demonized by the U.S. government and the media, left the United States. Film director John Huston moved to Ireland to protest and avoid blacklisting. Humphrey Bogart was among the first from Hollywood to be questioned by the HCUA and, along with Huston, helped found the Committee for the First Amendment to organize and protect the movie industry from the fallout of McCarthyism.
· Following World War II, music became a platform to express personal identity and political values. Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland whose photos are among those exhibited.
· Though Avedon included designer wedding gowns among the fashion spreads and advertisements he produced, in 1961, he created a very different set of images for Harper’s Bazaar, focusing on civil weddings at New York City Hall.
Six Sections/Six Collages
“(re) Framing Conversations” includes six collages, each addressing the six themes of the exhibition, which are inspired by Avedon’s work. Graphics were prioritized with images highlighting the power and agency of unrepresented communities. One of three tabletops includes outtakes of an Avedon photo session with actress Katharine Hepburn. A rotating selection of magazines (based on availability) from 1946 to 1965 will be available for visitors to read and gain insight as to how visual culture and the print medium impacted post-war America.
Avedon and the Smithsonian—A Brief History
In November 1962, the Smithsonian hosted Avedon’s first one-man show as part of a series of exhibitions displaying work by members of the Famous Photographers School. Avedon then donated the whole of that exhibition to the Smithsonian. Two additional donations of his work followed in the 1960s from which the photographs for this exhibition are drawn. In total, there are almost 1,000 photographs, negatives, advertisements and print proofs by Avedon at the National Museum of American History.
“(re)Framing Conversations: Photographs by Richard Avedon, 1946–1965” will be the premiere exhibition in conjunction with the Dec. 9 debut of the permanent exhibition, “Entertainment Nation/Nación del espectáculo” in the new Marcia and Frank Carlucci Hall of Culture and the Arts, located on the museum’s third-floor Culture Wing. “(re)Framing Conversations” is made possible by support from Judy and Leonard Lauder, with additional funding from Marcia and Frank Carlucci and the William Talbott Hillman Foundation.
Visitors can use their phone to access visual descriptions with QR codes located throughout the exhibition.
About the Museum
Through incomparable collections, rigorous research and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue N.W., between 12th and 14th streets, is open Friday through Tuesday between 10 a.m. and 5:30 p.m. Admission is free, and passes are not required. The doors of the museum are always open online and the virtual museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibitions, K–12 educational materials and programs. The public can follow the museum on social media on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook. For more information, visit the museum’s website. For Smithsonian information, the public may call (202) 633-1000.
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