My wife and I recently made a visit to the Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power exhibition at SDMA in Balboa Park.

Richard Avedon, whose career spanned six decades, was one of the most important photographers in the history of American photography. He was an innovator in portraiture and fashion photography and worked for Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and The New Yorker.

As a photographer myself, though of infinitesimal stature compared to the fame of Mr. Avedon, this exhibition of portraits interested me a lot. I have recently been writing a workshop about photographic composition, so the old chestnuts about framing and border mergers were fresh in my mind. What I saw in this exhibition therefore stood out and made me think.

In so many of these portraits, Avedon places his subject dead in the center of a square frame, cutting them off at the ankles and having their head touching the top of the frame. If I did that, I am sure everyone would just say I was a bad photographer. Richard Avedon does it and, of course, he's brilliant.

Assuming this to be deliberate, I wondered why he did it. I think because it creates a tension between the subject and the physical photograph. It draws attention to the frame as if to say that this is a bare photograph of a person, not a highly stylized portrait, and you can look into the frame and let the image speak for itself. The subjects, especially when seen in a group like this seem to have been captured in a moment, like in an identity photograph, without artifice or direction. In a portrait, the person in it knows they are being photographed and are interacting with the camera to present an image that they want us to see. Avedon, like all great photographers, breaks the mask and presents us with something very human.

I’ll be back at the exhibition again on Saturday at 1:00 p.m. for a walk-through talk by Arthur Ollman followed by a workshop on exploring the black-and-white portrait/self-portrait. If you are interested in coming along reservations can be made at [email protected]

Here’s one of the few portraits I’ve done where I did merge the subject with the border!...


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