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

Book Review: Love is a Mixed Tape by Rob Sheffield

"Love is a Mixed Tape" illustration 2014 by jpbohannon (based on book cover)

“Love is a Mixed Tape”
illustration 2014 by jpbohannon
(based on book cover)

 

On two separate occasions, my friend Jim has stopped the car on the way to dropping me off at the train station to finish listening to Neil Young’s “Country Girl.”  For him, he remembers a particular girlfriend who broke up with him oddly and for whom this song is a reminder. For me, I remember hitchhiking across Canada, sitting on the floor of a Winnipeg record store (Winnipeg was where Neil was born) and copying down the chords from a fake book. For both of us, the song is a lot more than just music and lyrics.

Jim and I often do this. The “where” and “when” of a song, the lives we were leading, the dreams we were having, the people we were hanging with, are as much a part of a song than any of its recordable parts. And for each of us, those elements are different and recall a thousand different memories.

This is the basis of Rob Sheffield’s memoir Love is a Mixed Tape. Sheffield–a writer for Rolling Stone–writes about his late wife and himself through the skeleton of different mixed tapes. The sub-title of the book is Life and Loss, One Song at a Time, and this is exactly it: the life of a man and the life of the woman he loved told through the soundtrack of their lives. And, for some of us, it is our lives as well.

Sheffield starts off going through his dead wife Renee’s belongings and discovering several of her mixed tapes, spending a sad night listening to the first one–The Smiths, Pavement, 10,000 Maniacs, R.E.M., Morrissey, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Boy George among them–commenting on her choices and their lives together when she made them. He talks about the various types of mixed tapes: the Party Tape, the “I Want You” tape, the “We’re Doing It” tape, the Road Tape, the “You Broke My Heart and Made Me Cry” tape, the Walking Tape, the Washing the Dishes tape. etc. From here he sets up his frame work–the tapes of our lives are the record of of our lives.

And so he begins. He starts by dissecting his own tapes, chronologically starting from a mixed tape he made as a thirteen-year old for an 8th-grade dance through his first romance and subsequent break up to his meeting Renee, their courtship and marriage, her sudden death and his struggles to continue on afterwards.  It is poignant and wise writing about  love and loss and survival.

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Mixed Tape Sheffield made for his 8th-grade dance

Many of the bands I had never heard of–both he and his wife were music writers–but the pure affection and excitement that these two shared for new and old music was infectious. He was an Irish-Catholic boy from Boston who grew up on Led Zeppelin, the J. Giles Band, and Aerosmith; she, an Appalachian girl from West Virginia as familiar with George Jones and Hank Williams as she was with the punk bands she adored. Together they made a likeable pair. And their knowledge and love for music is wide and inclusive.

Sheffield met his wife in 1989 and she died in 1997. Their relationship lasted most of the 1990s and this is where Sheffield the music critic is at his best. His analysis of that decade, where the music was going and what it was doing is trenchant: he understands the phenomenon of Kurt Cobain, the importance of female empowerment in 90s’ music, the resurgence of guitar bands. (His discussion of Cobain’s late music/performances as the plights and pleas of a pained husband is unique and insightful and bittersweet.)

The naturally shy Sheffield–understandably–reverts into himself after his wife’s death. He is more and more asocial, awkward and uncomfortable. He writes eloquently about the pain of loss, of the condition of “widow-hood,” of unexpected kindness, and of the haunting of the past. Sadly, music–which once was his  buoy in life–is pulling him down, especially the music that he and Renee had shared.  In the end, however, it is music that pulls him together as well. He moves out of the south and to New York City, he reconnects with friends, makes new friends, and–of course–starts seeing and listening to new bands.

photo 3(1)

This is the tape–the last in the book–that Sheffield made when moving into a new apartment in Brooklyn, December 2002.

Love is a Mixed Tape was recommended to me by a friend, Brendan McLaughlin. Brendan was born in the mid-80’s, not long before Sheffield and his wife first met.  He is connected much more closely to the music than I am, and I am sure that he recognized a lot more of the bands and songs cited than I did.  But that is the great thing about Sheffield’s memoir: you don’t have to be completely tuned into what he is listening to, just to what he is saying.

And what he says is true.