Among the first faces that Avedon immortalised were those of the United States military after he joined the ranks during World War II, serving as Photographer’s Mate Second Class in the US Merchant Marine. From there, it was on to Harper's Bazaar, Vogue and The New Yorker, along with other innumerable advertising and personal assignments, all of them made inimitable because of Avedon’s instinctual way of transforming prosaic landscapes into histrionic ones.
This centennial exhibition, which is no small feat, tunnels us through 60 years of his prolific career, illustrated thanks to the presence of photographic works selected by over 150 of those he snapped or encountered during his lifetime, including artists, designers, writers and curators. Tonne Goodman, for instance, picked out a gargantuan-sized 1957 print of Tina Turner, whilst Emma Watson chose a portrait of Donyale Luna, the first Black model to make an appearance on the cover of American Vogue. Undoubtedly, what these and the other photographs displayed in the exhibition do is speak a thousand words about how we, as observers, have come to understand Avedon through his work. Was he a provoker? A performer? Or a pioneer? If anything, this exhibition is one which decisively declares him to have been all three.
Alongside them, Avedon’s Sad Marilyn is undoubtedly a must-see, for the most part, because it unflinchingly strips back Marilyn Monroe’s enigmatic silver-screen persona, to bare the hauntingly poignant figure of Norma Jean underneath. “For hours she danced and sang and flirted and did this thing – that’s – she did Marilyn Monroe” the photographer reminisced later, “then there was the inevitable drop… she sat in the corner like a child, with everything gone.” Ultimately, it’s a 1979 portrait of Boyd Fortin, a 13-year-old Texan rattlesnake skinner, and another one worth highlighting, that urges us to consider him as not only a photographer for people but a photographer of people, especially because it’s merely one profile out of the thousands of others that Avedon captured throughout the 5 years he spent journeying around twenty-one Western states.