Richard Avedon, The Family
April 13-July 31, 2013
Early in 1976, with both the post-Watergate political atmosphere and the impending bicentennial celebration in mind, Rolling Stone Magazine asked the renowned photographer Richard Avedon (1923–2004) to cover the upcoming presidential primaries. Avedon rejected this idea, suggesting instead that he photograph the men and women who he believed were the key figures in the political, financial, and intellectual leadership of the United States.
For the next several months Avedon travelled across the United States from migrant grape fields in California to corporate headquarters in New York to political offices in Washington to photograph union leaders, government workers, business executives, political activists, and heads of media. Described by the photographer as “a composite portrait of the power elite,” the resulting series of 69 photographs, titled The Family, arrived too late for Rolling Stone Magazine’s bicentennial issue as originally planned. However it was published in its entirety in the October 21, 1976 issue, shortly before the November elections.
The 73 people depicted in these images were photographed in Avedon’s signature style: close up and facing front against a white paper backdrop framed only by the black edges of the negative. Divorced from a setting and denied props, Avedon’s subjects are both equalized and humanized, standing isolated and vulnerable to the scrutiny of the people over whom they hold power. Avedon attempted to avoid expressing his personal opinions as much as possible:
I didn’t want to pit Democrats against Republicans, or good versus bad. It’s too easy for a photographer to do that. In a way these pictures were almost taken by the people in the pictures. I didn’t tell them what to wear. I didn’t tell them how to pose. However they presented themselves, I recorded with very little manipulation….This silent theater attempts to achieve an illusion: that everything embodied in the photograph simply happened, that the person in the portrait was always there, was never told to stand there and in the end was not in the presence of a photographer…. [However] the moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.
Together as a series, the images create a vivid narrative about American politics and culture in a specific point in time—one in which the power elite consisted of mostly white, mostly male, and mostly older individuals. It is interesting to think who Avedon would choose to include in “The Family” of today.