Avedon at SFMOMA

Went to see the Avedon exhibition last week. I’ve been thinking about it off and on since then, and I’m still not entirely sure where I stand on the work I saw there.

Technically, he succeeds perfectly within the narrow range of techniques he employs — a bit like Atget, in that respect, a sort of single-minded thoroughness in taking those few techniques to their very limit. And I can’t really fault him as an artist, either — he obviously succeeds perfectly well in achieving his vision.

I just, well, don’t fucking like it. (Note: I’m not saying it’s bad.) I find it disturbing and off-putting. And also beautiful and sometimes very moving. And I haven’t really pinned down the source of that disturbance for me, but here’s my best guess at the moment:

Avedon is basically taking people and turning them into gods, or monsters, or monstrous gods. (Part of what I feel when I look at them is almost Lovecraftian, a mingled awe-disgust-fear.)

Why should this disturb me so? The deification of celebrities is nothing new, and should at worst be a matter of banality. The deification of ordinary people (which Avedon executes with the exact same techniques) should be a reversal of the hierarchy, and as such should appeal to the kind of simplistic leftism that is bred in my bones. But it does not.

I think it is something about the deification itself, regardless of subject, which is the source of the wrongness.

Avedon’s process is not like that of, say, Minor White, who can see in the flesh of a person an equivalent, a symbolic link to the numinous. There is nothing spiritual about what Avedon is doing. Avedon is crafting a totem or fetish out of the person. He is converting them into an idol.

This is a rather intense form of objectification — and when I say objectification, I am thinking of what Simone Weil said in her essay on The Iliad, about objectification as a form of violence or force. (Of which the most literal and extreme sort is death — that which transforms a human being completely and finally into a mere thing, that is, a corpse.)

In writing this, something suddenly clicked for me about Avedon’s photography. (God help me, I actually said, “Aha!”)

What clicked had to do with what I was supposed to be seeing in this exhibition. The curators and the reviewer in the Chronicle both placed great stress on the role of motion in Avedon’s photography, and both when I was looking at them in person, and as I mulled them over after the fact, this admonition (to see motion, to see these photographs as being about motion) persistently rang false to me. Or, rather, it rang half-true, and now I see why.

It is not motion which is present in these photographs, but…the false, the unfulfillable promise of motion, as if the subject were threatening (impotently, of course) at any moment to come to life.

This false promise is normally denoted by the term “lifelike,” and it is properly the province not of the photographer, but of the taxidermist…

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