Richard Avedon’s Family Affairs at the National Museum of American Jewish History

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

Subway poster advertising the Avedon exhibit.
Jerry Brown, Bella Abzug, Barbara Jordan and George H. W. Bush
photograph 2015 by jpbohannon

In 1972, Francis Ford Coppola released The Godfather, the film version of Mario Puzo’s blockbuster novel from three years earlier. Four years later he released The Godfather II. Both the novel and the films were more than just extraordinary successes, they became part of America’s cultural weltgiest. They were widely honored and celebrated and they spawned scores of imitations–some good, some not so good.

And for a while there, when one heard the word “the Family,” one reference came immediately to mind: organized crime.

So it was with not a little irony that Rolling Stone published sixty-nine Richard Avedon photos under the umbrella title “The Family.” The issue was published on October 21,1976–just before the 1976 election and little after the Bicentennial celebration that summer. The mood of the country was neither particularly joyous nor overly patriotic. It had been a rough eight years.  And Avedon’s portraits were of the U.S’s elite–the most powerful men (and a few woman) in the United States. Several would later move into even more powerful and influential roles

Avedon’s portraits are stark in their simplicity. The subjects stand before a white screen. There are no props (although Katherine Graham does hold her eye-glasses in her hands.) Most are straight-on, some slightly turned. And most stare straight into the camera.

They are revealing portraits.

So it was great fun strolling through these portraits on display at the National Museum of American Jewish History and thinking of what have become of some these powerful figures. (The exhibit ran until August 2.) More than a few of the subjects have had large effects on American life since these photos were taken in 1976.  There is George H. W. Bush, head of the CIA; Donald Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense for Gerald Ford; Ralph Nader, described simply as a “Consumer Advocate”; Ronald Reagan, at the time simply the “Former Governor of California”; W. Mark Felt, a former Associate Director of the FBI (and whom we know now was the infamous “Deep Throat” of Watergate fame); and Jerry Brown, in 1976 the youngest governor in California history. Thirty-five years later, Brown was again elected and became the oldest governor in California history.

Avedon who started out as I.D. photographer for the Merchant Marines, entered the world of fashion photography (he is the model for Fred Astaire’s character in Funny Face) and shot for Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, and Life. While still immersed in fashion photography, he began taking portraits of those involved in political dissidence and

Avedon--Self-Portrait 2 2006

Avedon–Self-Portrait 2 © Richard Avedon 2006

social issues, celebrities and workers, the demi-monde and the hard-scrabble. While his fashion photography may be timeless, it is these “social” portraits that are the most powerful and unforgettable

Such was Avedon’s reputation, that after “The Family” shoots, George H. W. Bush–America’s chief spy-master at the time–wrote the following to Rolling Stone:

It was a pleasure having Mr. Avedon out here at CIA… .  I don’t know if he was as scared to come out here as I was in posing for the great Avedon, but he sure has a neat way of putting his victims at ease and I enjoyed our short time together.

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for

George H. W. Bush and Katherine Graham. Promotional photo for “Family Affairs” at NMAJH.

THE FAMILY

The following are the list of subjects of Rolling Stone’s photo-essay “The Family”. These photos were part of the National Museum of American Jewish History exhibit, Avedon: Family Affairs.

Bella Abzug             Carl Albert              James Angleton              Walter Annenberg
J. Paul Austin           Benjamin Bailar      Roger Baldwin                Daniel Boorstin
Jerry Brown              Gen. George Brown     Arthur Burns             George H. W. Bush
Earl Butz                    Joseph Califano       Jimmy Carter                 Emanuel Celler
César Chávez           Shirley Chisholm        Frank Church                Clark Clifford
John DeButts            Thomas Eagleton       W. Mark Felt               Frank Fitzsimmons
Gerald Ford               Thomas Gleason        Katherine Graham      F. Edward Hérbert
Adm. James Holloway     Hubert Humphrey     Daniel Inouye         Lady Bird Johnson
Gen. David Jones         Barbara Jordan          Edward “Ted” Kennedy
Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy    Henry Kissinger     Richard Kleindienst    Melvin Laird
Mike Mansfield            Eugene McCarthy      George McGovern          George Meany
Arnold Miller            Herbert J. Miller, Jr.    Daniel Patrick Moynihan   Edmund Muskie
Ralph Nader           Thomas “Tip” O’Neill         William Paley          A. Philip Randolph
Ronald Reagan      Elliot Richardson    Admiral Hyman Rickover   Nelson Rockefeller
Peter Rodino            Felix Rohatyn          A.M.Rosenthal          Pete Rozelle
Donald Rumsfeld      Charles Shaffer         William Simon         Jules Stein
I. F. Stone                  Cyrus Vance             George Wallace      Gen. Fred C. Weyand
Edward Wilson           Gen. Louis Wilson      Leonard Woodcock    Rose Mary Woods
James Skelly Wright   Andrew Young

The Other Families

Besides the portraits from the Rolling Stone piece, the exhibit “Avedon: Family Affairs” also contained several large scale murals of other different “families.”  His portrait of the Chicago Seven is notable because of the absence of Bobby Seale, who had been jailed the day before the group shot was to be taken. There is a large mural of Andy Warhol’s “Factory” denizens, notable here for containing two portraits of Joe Dallesandro–one nude, one clothed. And there is a wonderful portrait, the largest of all of them, of Allen Ginsberg’s family. The family–celebrating the publication of Ginsberg’s father’s collection of poems–is a wonderful group, disparate like all families, but very much connected. Some hold plates with cake, some hold coffee cups, one sits, the rest stand, some stare at the camera, some look away.

It is a honest family shot of an American icon.

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg's Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).  Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Richard Avedon, Allen Ginsberg’s Family, Paterson, New Jersey, May 3, 1970 (1970).
Photo: courtesy of NMAJH

Photography, Joni Mitchell’s “A Case of You,” and blogging again

It’s been a while since I posted something on this site.  There have been several reasons:  I’ve had to write for another blog for work but that really didn’t take that much time; I was working hard with painting and drawing; and it was a very busy summer with many short bursts of travel.  I have also become obsessed with blipfoto, a photography site that challenges a person to post just one photo every day.  Sometimes, I am very pleased with my photos (I live in a very interesting neighborhood in a very interesting city) and sometimes I am just rushing to get one posted before the day is through.

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

Blipfoto for September 4, 2014

I posted this photo on line last week of my turntable playing a Joni Mitchell album. Sardonically, I called it a “vintage music delivery device.” A lovely woman from Ireland (and you should see the photographs she takes!) wrote to me and asked if the song playing was “A Case of You.”  It wasn’t but I wrote back to her and told her how that song and the album it appeared on Blue are among my very favorites. And like all great music,  it is somehow emotionally and viscerally connected to us through memories.

The cover of Joni Mitchell's Blue

The cover of Joni Mitchell’s Blue

In the song “California,” for example, my good friend Jim had misheard the lyric from “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Vogue” as “they were reading Rolling Stone, they were reading Boll,” so he checked out the writer Heinrich Boll to see what everyone was talking about. Twenty years later, when I first met him, he was still reading Boll. Fair play to him there!  I remember one friend–who was living with a guy who had been drafted but who went AWOL at least three times that summer to materialize in the same beach-bar–singing “My Old Man.”  I don’t know why but her singing “We don’t need a piece of paper from the city hall” has always stuck in my head.

Blue was the soundtrack (there were many soundtracks) to that young summer in a beach town that was free and happy and exciting. It seemed no matter what apartment or hovel you found yourself in, it was playing on the stereo. It…or Moondance …or After the Gold Rush.  It was a good summer to be alive.

So thanks soletrader for bringing up “A Case of You.”  Somehow, I have lost the vinyl album but I do have it on CD. In the days when I used to drive more often, I would pop it into the player and would  skip forward to “A Case of You,” playing it over and over again and singing along the entire time.  (Unless, that is, if it were Christmas time. Than I would select “The River.” And play that over and over again.)

But to be honest, every song on Blue is masterful, not a bad one in the bunch. From “My Old Man” to “Carey” to “The Last Time I saw Richard.”  Perhaps what makes this so is the honesty of both the words and the performance. There is pain in her voice. There is wisdom. There is experience.

Male or female, we have all been there.

So here she is, herself, singing “A Case of You.” Enjoy. (Excuse the pop up info-bytes about Joni Mitchell)

 

 

Movie Review: Black, White + Gray: A Portrait of Sam Wagstaff and Robert Mapplethorpe 

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

Sam Wagstaff and Robert Maplethorpe

I discovered a documentary the other night called Black, White + Gray by James Crumb (2007). The blurb calls it a study of the relationship between the curator/collector Sam Wagstaff, the artist Robert Mapplethorpe, and the poet/singer Patti Smith. To be honest, however, it is really the story of Wagstaff, that touches greatly on his relationship with Mapplethorpe and to a much smaller degree with Smith, both for whom he was mentor and patron and friend. (In Mapplethorpe’s case lover and companion.) Consequently, it also deals with art, the business of art, the demimonde of gay life in the 1970s and 80s, and, of course, the scourge of AIDS.

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

patti smith robert mapplethorpe

Moving chronologically through Wagstaff’s life–and anchored by Patti Smith’s intelligent and honest and fond recollections–the film follows Wagstaff from his schooldays through his loathed time spent in advertising to his prominence in the art worlds of New York, Paris and London. Along the way, there are appearances on the Dick Cavett Show, press conferences, interviews with his friends and colleagues, and countless photographs, many taken by him or Mapplethorpe and many part of his historic collection.

Wagstaff was strikingly handsome, aristocratic, and intelligent. (Dominick Dunne called him one of the most handsome men he ever saw.) He was also gay, but closeted himself for much of the oppressive fifties and early part of his life. Not until his meeting with Mapplethorpe did it seem he grew comfortable with his homosexuality. As a curator, he embraced and pushed forward those artists and art forms that were still on the fringe, Minimalism, Earth Works, Conceptual Art, and, most importantly, photography. Wagstaff believed that photography was an ignored art and deserved to be elevated to the pantheon of “Fine Arts.”

Indeed, it is because of Wagstaff that photography holds the status that it does today. His relentless collecting, the exorbitant sums he paid, the continual praise and comments in the press, single-handedly hauled photography onto the main stage.

A few years before he died, Wagstaff sold his private collection of photographs to the Getty Museum in Los Angeles for the then unheard-of price of $5-million. It was testimony to how far he had brought photography to the forefront.

The interviews within the film are honest and intelligent. Many deal with his collecting, with his curating, and with his “vision.” Many deal (some negatively, some positively) with his relationship with Mapplethorpe. Dominick Dunne, particularly, gets much air time, and talks about Wagstaff in two of the worlds that he lived in–the socialite world and the gay world. And all is brought together by the reminiscences of Smith.

“Compartmentalized” is a word that often came up, and it seemed that Wagstaff was very good in ordering his life into separate and distinct components. But in the end, it was the gay world that did him–and so many others–in. It is easy to forget that at one point, AIDS was a scourge that was decimating much of the art world. The film ends with Wagstaff’s death, and then with Mapplethorpe’s, and then with a list of the many artists who have died of AIDS complications since.

It is a sobering ending. But then the credits role and are intersperse with clips from the many interviewees and once again we are reminded of the life, of the visionary man who rose so high in the world of art–and brought others with him .

We know much about Mapplethorpe’s life, and Patti Smith’s, greatly due to her wonderful memoir, Just Kids. James Crumb’s film Black, White + Gray adds greatly to our knowledge of that time and that world and the people who populated it. It’s worth while finding and fascinating viewing.

By the way…

The title of the film, Black, White + Gray not only refers to the B&W Photography that Sam Wagstaff collected, cataloged, and often curated, or the shades of distinctions in the compartmentalized life that he constructed, but also to the momentous exhibited he staged at the Hartford Wadsworth Atheneum entitled “Black, White and Gray.” The exhibit, considered the first minimalist show, featured the work of Stella, Johns, Kelly, and Lichtenstein, among others. It was an extraordinary success, influencing fashion, Hollywood, advertising, and, of course, Truman Capote’s infamous Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote's Black and White Ball.

Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow arriving at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball.

https://i2.wp.com/media-cache-ak0.pinimg.com/192x/85/cf/f1/85cff11fb5bb99780ab77c77af4861d9.jpg

Andy Warhol at Truman Capote’s Black and White Ball without a mask.

Sarah Bones: Photographing the Other Side

I have a friend, Sarah Bones, who is an award-winning photographer.

Sarah takes photographs for NGOs in some of the most devastated parts of the world–the other side of what we know. She has photographed the wreckage of the great tsunami in India from a few years back, a refugee camp in Tanzania, the horrors of Sierra Leone and Rwanda.

Here’s the biography from her web site:

Sarah S. Bones saved for her first 35mm camera at age 13, in 1969. She immediately hitchhiked into Philadelphia so that she could photograph the lives and circumstances of people living on the street. As a professional photographer, her passion and courage in documenting people in need continued and has carried her to Africa, across Asia, Guatemala, Cuba and locally, into prisons, homeless shelters and the intensity of political campaigns. She uses her camera and vision to tell the stories of men, women, and children around the world who are voiceless and too often ignored by the popular media.

Sarah is a self-taught, award winning photographer based outside of Philadelphia who works in both digital and film. Her photographs have been exhibited both nationally and internationally. When not on an assignment she has a successful freelance business in the Philadelphia area.

Recently she mounted an exhibit in Malvern, PA.  It is a small show with maybe thirty or forty prints detailing life in the slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh.

In this particular show, the photographs focus on the birthing center in the busy Karail slum in Dhaka, Bangladesh. In her notes to the photographs, she mentions that “Bangladesh is on track to meet the 2015 deadline for U.N. Millennium Development Goal 5 (50 percent reduction in maternal deaths).” It is an extraordinary program that tries to save mothers who give birth in some of the most primitive conditions.

Those photographs which are not focused on the birthing center looks at Dhaka itself. Dhaka has a small industry of dismantling great ships, and the photos show young boys of 7 and 8 years old, barefoot and wide-eyed, working in the scrap yards where metal is being smelted, parts disassembled, everything salvaged. Like the birthing center, this is by no means a tech-savvy industry, but simply subsistence salvaging taking place in the most dire environment.

The photographs are stunning.  Not only for the subjects–which are more than provocative and more than memorable–but for their beauty.  Colors scream out in brilliance against the drab background of the Karail slum and the dramatic black-and-whites are beautifully lit, lending a wisdom and dignity to her subjects. One photo of a building streaked with rust and grime from which bright Bangladesh clothes hung to dry was my favorite.  It reminded me of an abstract painting–with so much more invested within.

The photographs are all copyrighted and cannot be posted.  But they are visible on her web site.  Do try to check it out. There are photographs there that you may never forget. Click here for Sarah’s web-site