Sorry, but I am not at all impressed

An open letter to photographer Richard Avedon

Dear Mr Avedon,

I have just unwrapped your new books, An Autobiography and Evidence.

I am normally excited about photography books. But strangely enough, I could not get excited about yours. The fact that I felt this way disturbed me.

So, I have decided to be honest about my thoughts.

Sorry, Mr Avedon, I do not like your books.

To begin with, I am put off by the titles. An Autobiography! Evidence!

Yuks! And I must add that the bold red and oversized typography on the cover and the box make you look really egoistical.

Please also blame your friends at American Photo magazine for helping to cultivate this anti-feeling about you.

Pardon me, but I still do not understand why the photography circle is so overwhelmed by you and your work.

I understand that you studied with the design guru, Alexey Brodovitch, and gave him many good pictures to use in Harper’s Bazaar.

I have seen some of them and must agree that they are very nice. I certainly like the way some of your photographs were cropped.

I also heard that Funny Face, the movie starring Fred Astaire, was inspired by you. According to the experts, you are the only photographer to have been honoured in such a way.

I read that when Tina Brown took over the editorship of The New Yorker, she made you the only staff photographer of the magazine.

But sir, your photographs do not speak to me in the same way as those of your peers.

When I look at Evidence, I cannot help but wonder why the title was chosen. I have a feeling that it refers only to evidence of your existence.

And I am right!

First, there is a picture of Mr Brodovitch and yourself going through the layouts for your first book, Observations.

Then, there is a picture of you and Marilyn Monroe, in which you looked enchanted. I also remember a picture of you being led away by the police for protesting against the Vietnam War.

My personal favourite is definitely one of you and your buddy, Sam Baldwin. Your resemblances are eerie.

It is very kind of you to share the secrets of your success. I am sure a lot of us will benefit from looking at your contact prints.

Your buddy, Adam Gopnik, has done a good job with the unofficial biography of you. But I regretted reading his essay after my opinion of you had already been formed.

“His images are orchestrated, retouched, composed, collaged. Nothing happens by accident,” he said.

“People with a mistrust of high style and a preference for the archly candid will, therefore, never be made to care for much of Avedon’s work.”

That is exactly my problem with your work.

Maybe you should consider putting that warning on the cover if the books are reprinted. But I doubt it will change my opinion.

Before I get accused of being narrow-minded and for having a bias for spontaneous pictures, let me qualify that, even though I was trained as a photojournalist, I also like glamour photography.

I like the work of Annie Leibovitz and Irving Penn, and I love the work of Arnold Newman and Gregory Heisler. They put their personal stamp on their photographs.

But I have such a hard time warming up to your images.

Could it be because you give the impression of trying too hard to sell yourself?

What bothered me most when I flipped through the pages is your apparent need to show versatility at any cost.

I felt uncomfortable seeing a semi-naked Stephanie Seymour on one page and then a napalmed victim on another. If it was meant as a social commentary,

I am sorry, but I have missed the point completely.

When I saw your work, I saw glimpses of a lot of other photographers’ masterpieces. I saw influences of Cartier-Bresson, I saw shadows of Penn. I also saw Diane Arbus and, most definitely, Philippe Halsmann.

This confused me somewhat because you are supposed to be one of the United States’ greatest living photographers, if not the greatest.

Some of your photographs, for example, the one from the East Louisiana State Hospital, look like they could have been taken by just about anyone.

Your much-lauded large format pictures of drifters, bartenders, loggers, etc, I found particularly uninvolving and shallow.

Maybe it was the identical flat lighting of the subjects against a white background, but the nagging suspicion remains that just about any competent professional, given the luxury of a lot of free time, could have come up with similar pictures.

True, some of your fashion photographs are interesting, but I have seen similar subjects done better.

Despite all the questions I have about your books, I am going to recommend that the local libraries buy a few copies. Maybe some photo-buffs will find them educational.

As for myself, I think I will return the books to the store and save my money for a rainy day.

Tay Kay Chin


This column first appeared in The Straits Times in 1993.