Fuck History, Let’s Dance: Richard Avedon in Paris, 1956
Man forgets that he produces images to find his way in the world; he now tries to find his way in images.He no longer deciphers his own images, but lives in their function. Imagination has become hallucination. –Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Vilem Flusser
Photography, which has so many narcissistic uses, is also a powerful instrument for depersonalizing our relation to the world; and the two uses are complementary. –On Photography, Susan Sontag
The picture was elaborately titled by Richard Avedon: “Robin Tattersall and Suzy Parker, models, Place de la Concorde; Paris, August 1, 1956.” As John Berger said of a nude by Albrecht Durer: “The result would glorify Man but the exercise presumed a remarkable indifference to who any one person really was.”1 By 1956 the American photographer Richard Avedon showed two models on roller skates on the Place de la Concorde exhibiting a particular kind of movement: carefree. They are youthful, deliriously in the moment, and only a little younger than Avedon himself who was then thirty-three. It is of course a publicity photograph meant for easy consumption in a magazine, but for that very reason there is something that we can learn from it about where American sensibilities were then, and the road that the country as a whole would eventually choose to take. Avedon himself ultimately embraced another path far different from the promise of that picture made in the summer of 1956. What can that picture tell us today?
In Avedon’s picture the male hand pointing right beautifully articulates the counterpoint of the woman’s scarf pointing left. Female and male balance each other out and the massive Place de la Concorde looks like an enormous stage with a small row of classical buildings in the distance like toy sets. Avedon’s humanist leanings are fully operational as the models tower above the man made landscape, their ecstasy a triumph of Western liberal democracy and liberty expressing a newfound freedom: sexual, social and economic, all wrapped up in one package and ready-to-go, as the Americans say. It is a triumphant image. The statue of Louis XV sitting heroically on a horse that stood gloomily in the center of the square has been replaced by a joyous American couple ready to set the world right. They aren’t just dancing, they are saying ‘fuck you’ to history. They are saying the moment is now, it’s here, let’s dance. History: FUCK YOU.
Avedon’s aggressively flamboyant image has a narrative at its heart and that is that the play and magic of childhood can be extended to an adulthood that is sensual, sexual and romantic indefinitely, without limits. It is a narrative that is democratically available to all who desire it. This is not a new narrative – or fantasy in the form of a narrative – but it is given a contemporary makeover that is original and fresh. History (symbolized by the government buildings in the distance) can now be seen as something literally and figuratively behind us, a mere backdrop, a picturesque antique from the distant past that we may use as we like. Is Avedon’s enterprise possible?
The Place de la Concorde was originally named Place Louis XV when it premiered in 1755 and was used mostly in ceremonial parades. Thirty-four years later the octagon shaped square was used during the French Revolution as the place that housed the infamous guillotine, and its name was temporarily changed to Place de la Révolution. Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Georges Danton, and Madame du Barry were some of the many that were guillotined there. In 1794, in a single month, thirteen hundred people were executed there, their blood poured into the open gutters.2 It is a place that was meant to celebrate the power of kings and then to celebrate their extinction at the hands of the revolution. What Avedon comes to celebrate is clear – it’s a fresh start. That is what the image proclaims: this dance is meant to do away with history and its oppressive weight. Like the American musicals that it references, made during the same time period, it suggests that transformation and joy are creative possibilities that are within reach for all of us.
Avedon arrived at the concept of the image from three primary sources that he then amalgamated into a coherent, seemingly spontaneous image. With these three examples as guides Avedon created a luminous photograph and a template for American advertising that would last well into the next century. The picture’s primary source of inspiration was the work of Jacques Henri Lartigue, a photographer known primarily for his candid photographs of his wealthy family and friends during the Belle Epoque in France. His images of automobile and airplane races, fashionable ladies strolling in the park, and people jumping, skating, rolling and diving, created – via John Szarkowski’s influential exhibitions at MoMA – a moving portrait of the period seen by several generations of museum visitors. Avedon himself would help to promote Lartigue’s work by editing his first book, “Diary of a Century.” The second influence was the work of the Hungarian photographer Martin Munkácsi. In the late1920’s and 1930’s it was Munkácsi who took Stieglitz’s and Steichen’s more formal approach to fashion photography, that sought to approximate the high tone of classical painting, outdoors into the sunlight and asked models to run on the beach and laugh directly into the camera – in effect bringing the spontaneity, fun, and play of the Kodak snapshot into the staid and serious realm of fashion by cleverly affecting its formal cues, and staging them on location. The third element in the mix is the contemporaneous Hollywood musical brought to perfection by Vincente Minnelli, Adolph Green, Betty Comden, Arthur Freed, Gene Kelly, Ginger Rogers and Fred Astaire alongside many master technicians that worked within the studio system in the Los Angeles “dream factory.” The obvious film that is referenced is Shall We Dance (1937) where Astaire and Rogers wear roller skates and perform a brilliant set piece in a park created in RKO studios, dancing to Ira Gershwin’s “Let’s Call The Whole Thing Off.” Typical of the self-deprecating humor involved in this aesthetic they end their set by falling into the bushes. Aside from entertaining mass audiences these musicals expressed a profoundly American philosophy of Pragmatism, espoused by William James and Charles Sanders Peirce in books, but expressed in the American film industry through a visual poetics of bodies in motion that had few equals – perhaps its only equal was in modern dance, such as the revolutionary work of Merce Cunningham. While these musicals affected an air of whimsy and lightness of touch they in fact signaled a radical revolution in art where “heaven” would no longer be linked to death cults: From the ancient Egyptians and their Book of the Dead, to Medieval Europeans and their Book of the Apocalypse; from 18th European creeds of revolutionary martyrdom to 19th century romantic American landscapes that were strangely depopulated and saturated with mystical symbolism and religious meaning. As a riposte the American musical constructed a belief system that espoused a heaven-on-earth made possible through ecstatic dance that is both sexual and communal. In short, the American musical tapped into pagan, Pre-Christian philosophies, such as Epicurianism, and combined it with American Pragmatism to create a seductive mixture of self-realization and happiness (the word is written into the American Constitution) in the here-and-now. While the philosophic foundations of the musical were radical, its content emphasized a conservative, even reactionary, retrenchment of traditional family values, often temporarily usurped by lusty, male (heterosexual) braggadocio, but always triumphing in the end – usually in marriage vows and a return to the fold. The tensions between the pagan/dance and the traditions of home and family were the motor that drove the engine of the classical musical, and the template would only be broken by the filmmakers of the New American Cinema, most poignantly with Bob Fosse’s Cabaret (1972) and Martin Scorsese’s New York, New York (1977).
In the classical musical this ecstatic philosophy – free-market individualism – in action directly confronts European philosophy in Funny Face (1957), the film loosely based on Avedon’s life as a fashion photographer for Harper’s Bazaar and Condé Nast, in which Fred Astaire played Avedon. Stanley Donen’s film, where Avedon was credited as “special visual consultant,” astutely captures the charismatic charm of the master photographer and his model/muse. In real life it was the model Dovima – who famously posed for Avedon with an elephant in one of his iconic fashion images – that was his young protégé and muse. In Funny Face it is Audrey Hepburn, playing Jo Stockton, a bookshop assistant who is enamoured of existentialism – transformed to “emphaticalism” – and its blowhard leader, Professor Emile Flostre modeled on an amalgam of Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, but caricatured as an intellectual poseur and playboy on the make. Joe Stockton is the “It” girl who conquers Paris despite the odds, and as to be expected, finally sees through the absurdity of “emphaticalism” with the help of Astaire/Avedon – or Dick – as he is called throughout the film. More importantly she witnesses first hand the truth that dancing and posing for images can be a form of poetics and play in the face of the infinite. Like American jazz and abstract expressionist painting – that were contemporaneous with the film – dance and improvisation can become powerful expressions of the existential will to exist in the face of oblivion. The obtuse and heavy Flostre and the light and nimble Astaire/Avedon are both philosophers but at opposite ends of the spectrum, and it is clear that “emphaticalism” does not stand a chance in the face of Astaire/Avedon’s philosophy, that is the very sort of philosophic amalgam described earlier, a mixture of pagan Cynicism and American Pragmatism – a philosophy that he expresses, appropriately, not in books but in action. Unfortunately for Funny Face by the post-war era this seemingly simple, no-nonsense, practical philosophy, once deployed in the real world, had showed itself to be violent, destructive, patronizing and patriarchal. This philosophy was the backbone of a strain of capitalism that did not recognize limits or boundaries and an insidious colonialism without moral restraints that picked up where Europe had left off. Like all such enterprises it came home to roost, and seeped insidiously into all areas of everyday life, including the arena of sex and mating rituals. Astaire/Avedon explains Flostre’s hypocrisy by exclaiming that the esteemed professor “is about as interested in your intellect as I am.” The blow-up sequence in the film, in which Dick falls in love with the face of Jo that he develops in the darkroom, rather than Jo herself, anticipates Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966) and its obsession with eroticism, image making, and the nature of the real where “imagination becomes hallucination.” Unlike Antonioni, Donen and Astaire follow the predictable, and staid, romanticism of the fictional narrative – boy meets girl, etc. to the very end – that is to kitsch – thereby undermining their critical observations, leaving them in the darkroom undeveloped.
In the late fifties Henri Cartier-Bresson was also in Paris, along with Avedon, shooting his hometown. His images speak of a different kind of place, loaded with history. Pictures such as Place de la Concorde (1952) with its pedestrians, trucks and traffic let in the history that Avedon was so at pains to repudiate. But there is another image by Cartier-Bresson from 1958 that calls Avedon’s bluff. On first glance there doesn’t seem to be much history in it at all. There are no marches against injustices to workers or students turning over cars because of some new colonial war. Something else is going on. In Untitled 1958 a couple is kissing in the street – an ephemeral, vernacular photograph surely – yet it is also a photograph that depicts history in the larger sense. How did Cartier-Bresson accomplish this?
The man and woman kissing are very much in the moment, wrapped up in their personal history while the larger History is put on hold. But Cartier-Bresson sees the personal and its larger complex historical context, and he is able to articulate this pictorially in a single frame. The over-lit clock, due to the long exposure, hanging from the ceiling behind the word “quais” (platform) catches our eye. The reason for this is that the clock does two things: First the time itself is barely readable because of the overexposed light emanating from the clock face. Secondly the lovers were lit and partially silhouetted by the light from the clock illuminating their kiss. This light attaches the experience of the kiss to a duration within various interlocking histories. There is the history of this particular couple (which we will never know), then the larger social history of the time and place that they are inhabiting (which we partly know) in the European postwar period, the Cold War, the class antagonism that was building, the Algerian war, Vietnam, etc. Cartier-Bresson put these people into time because photography cannot do that passively. A photographer must construct a space where time is a player, as consciously fabricated as in a film by Alain Resnais. In Hiroshima Mon Amour (1959) his great collaboration with Marguerite Duras, they superimpose a window reflecting clocks split in half and bisected horizontally, with Japanese writing, onto the facade of a French building from the previous century – a palimpsest of times and spaces related only by memory.
In the Cartier-Bresson image an advertising poster displaying modernist design and typography stands directly above another poster depicting a traditional landscape. The two posters and the couple are having a dialog thanks to Cartier-Bresson’s framing. Now, this is not unusual. If we go out in the street today we might find similar adverts that contain contemporary avant-garde designs next to conservative traditional posters, made to satisfy the wide range of visual tastes casually sharing the same wall space. But due to the placement in the frame, Cartier-Bresson creates a symbolic tension between the two conflicting design modes and the couple. This is a tension that is then echoed in the empty kiosk that separates the exterior world from the platform. The couple blend into the kiosk due to their dark coats – a kiosk that is strongly lit but empty suggesting absence, loss, or death.
This couple is free (in the philosophical sense of having free will) and stuck in time (in the physiological sense of the laws of physics). The clock is both an opening into a space because it is the present, and there is some freedom to choose in the present, and a death sentence from which there is no reprieve. This couple does what almost anyone would do under those condition; they seize the moment. Is it the right moment? We don’t know. The couple does not know, but the clock is ticking and they have stopped to kiss just between the outside world and the inside platform – they are in-between – suspended – putting history on hold long enough for one kiss – that’s all they have – it’s their story in one second.
What did Avedon see in the Place de la Concorde that August day? A couple dancing on skates who are not really a couple, but models that are being paid to act as if they were a couple (and as if it were winter even though it is summer). There is the crew who helped him in the shoot: make-up people, wardrobe, hair stylists, drivers, translators, assistants, etc. In short, all of the things that are missing from the shot – that are behind the camera – are what might have made that shot interesting. If only someone had been shooting Avedon and his crew there would be something compelling there – perhaps. But the master photographer’s overwhelming sense of romantic spectacle, his minute attention to detail, and his sense of complete control within the frame – his great strengths – are precisely what limits his image as it is locked into a rudimentary romanticism from which it cannot escape. Avedon is at pains to negate tragedy – and he pays for that negation by submitting to the theater of fantasy. He is not aware that it is possible to include both fantasy narrative, or genre, and the contemporary documentary, or the historical, within the same image. Let’s find an example that is from the same period.
Three years after Avedon, Jean-Luc Godard also filmed a couple walking down a street in France, this time the Champs-Élysées, shot with a camera hidden in a bread cart. By doing so he incorporates the passersby who happen to be casually strolling down the street on a beautiful spring day in Paris in 1959, including one man trying to sell something to Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as they flirt and talk. In the Godard film, as well as in the Avedon picture, they are actors, but Godard has done something very important that Avedon failed to do. He seized the opportunity to shoot his film guerrilla style on the streets using the random, haphazard reality of the moment thereby creating a historical document of the time and place. Godard said he shot his film in the style of cinéma vérité, as if making a documentary about the making of a gangster film. Godard merges Avedon’s romanticism, and his emphasis on clear dichotomies, with Cartier-Bresson’s attention to quotidian historical detail, and his emphasis on the tragic and the unknown, and therein lies the charm and part of the genius of Breathless (1959).
What makes Avedon’s dismissal of the historical so damming is that in subsequent years American advertising, art, and fashion photography deviated only very slightly from the a-historical program outlined by Avedon in 1956. His photograph is a kind of template of an American idea, or ideal, that although he did not invent – it existed in embryo form – he used it without reflecting on its consequences. Its power is so pervasive and pernicious that it persists, in one form or another, to this day. To Avedon’s credit, he would be one of the first to move away from the artificiality and aversion to historical realities, and its emphasis on individualism, that the image imposes as a fait accompli.
The dark side to this concept is clear when we remember that 1956 was the year that the war in Vietnam passed from French to American hands with no fanfare and little reportage as it was still considered then a French affair. This was the year the Vietnamese, with American financial and military support, refused to hold elections (that would probably have been won by the Communists) and thereby set the stage for an attack by Communist-led guerrillas known as the Vietcong. It was also the year Graham Greene published “The Quiet American” in the United States, a brilliant and prescient indictment of colonial greed, moral corruption, and predatory sexuality in Southeast Asia.
It is in Vietnam that the philosophy of American pragmatism showed its true face – that of a colonial master, in the British and French tradition, putting HIS house in order and the “natives” in their proper place, so they understand who’s in charge. Avedon himself traveled to Vietnam in 1971 and said, “… all of the people that I have photographed in the last year and a half have been affected by Vietnam – as has all of American life. Vietnam is an extension – unfortunately – of everything sick in America.”3 One hears in Avedon’s despairing language Joseph Conrad’s cry: “the horror” from Heart of Darkness (1900), that would be re-deployed in Vietnam courtesy of Francis Ford Coppola in Apocalypse Now (1979) where Marlon Brando plays the mad, colonial emperor, Colonel Kurtz, who comes to believe he can save a people by killing them.
In 1975 the war ended, and the North and South were reunited in a Communist victory. In a sense the burdens of History in 1956 passed from European to American hands, just as the Americans, or at least the population at large, were most eager to disengage emotionally from the historical, as seen not only in Avedon’s image, but those photographers who used their images to sell not simply a product but an idea. That idea is, in a word, “freedom.” Freedom from history, freedom from class hierarchies, freedom from the urgency of death – and freedom to escape restrictions on the self, freedom to move ever forward into greater unlimited progress, greater upward mobility, greater unlimited power.
That Avedon would choose a place as loaded with history as the Place de la Concorde is a credit to his chutzpah, and to the brash, confident American sensibility (in 1956) that permeated the postwar years. Aside from Vietnam, the murder of Malcolm X, the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the horrific atomization of a consumer driven culture, and the ascendancy of the corporate state and its resultant cultural stagnation, were still in the future. Significantly Avedon’s image would be much copied but would not be repeated by Avedon himself, who turned mostly to highly realistic studio portraits. It would be up to other photographers and filmmakers to take up the mantle of that photograph shot in Paris in 1956 and reformulate it for contemporary tastes, translating it to the theater of advertising photography and the feature film. We see this in Norman Parkinson’s Couple Running over a Bridge, (1960), Elliot Erwitt’s Paris, (1989), Neil Simon’s and Gene Saks’ Barefoot in the Park (1967) and Blake Edward’s Breakfast at Tiffany’s (1961) all of which show the indelible power of Avedon’s original image as it captures the essence of a collective fantasy in a single shot. That Avedon was well aware of this fantasy aspect, and its commercial appeal, is clear from an interview from 1993:
Richard Avedon: Carmel Snow (Editor of Harper’s Bazaar) said,’ Do you realize what Harper’s Bazaar and your work mean to the economy of France? We have to recreate the sense of an illusory Paris!’
Question: A sense of… Champagne?
Richard Avedon: Exactly. I photographed a prewar Paris (in 1956), a Lubitsch Paris, a Paris that did not exist. And it worked! The buyers came, the world came back to Paris hungrily.4
In the 1950’s the buyers came for a fake Paris of the 20’s and 30’s – a Lubitch’s makebelieve world that had ceased to exist even before the Nazis occupied the French capital. The re-imagined and romanticized Paris of Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Joyce, Pablo Picasso, Sonia Delaunay, and many other modern masters would bring tourists to Paris well into the next century. Ernst Lubitch’s films from the early sound period had a droll and ironic regard towards their own deep romanticism, and an aristocratic and ironic faux disdain for the sordid hunger for luxury and beauty that would be much copied by filmmakers and photographers from Billy Wilder to Deborah Turbeville. Ironically later in the century photographers such as Elliott Erwitt made people hungry for the Paris of the 1950’s: the Paris of Jean-Paul Sartre’s and Simone de Beauvoir’s salons, Jean Genet’s radical demimonde, Jean Debuffet’s Art Brut and Ed Van Der Elsken’s romantic bistros. Erwitt and the more prosaic photographers of a later generation recycled Avedon’s original work of the 1950’s, turning it into a marketable style that could be recycled, with minor changes, indefinitely. Throughout the 1960’s Avedon himself made use of a strobe light in front of a white seamless, eliminating the outside world altogether, concentrating on the facial and physiological demeanor of the major and minor players in the American (and Vietnamese) scene of the following decades, collecting a kind of psychological portrait of his era.
In this body of work, individuals dressed for their professions, enter the white void of Avedon’s seamless space, turning their clothes into costumes and their lives into theater. Their energy is held for a second, their heavy, thick drama put on hold, while Avedon got his shot. A second later they leave his stage and go back to their dense destiny but Avedon has captured a slice of that drama in a back and white negative as thin as human skin. Meanwhile his fashion work, that was so crucial to his early development and sensibility in the 1950’s, had by the following decade become a lucrative business and a hardened shell – an armor against the violent world of everyday life – that photojournalists in the field were confronting with a dramatic power and emotional intensity that far surpassed the parochialism of fine art photography, or the fetishistic calculations of advertising. It is in the work of Larry Burrows, Susan Meiselas, Philip Jones Griffiths, Diane Arbus, William Klein, Vivian Meyer, Nigel Henderson and Robert Frank among others, that a revolution occurred within photography that started a new chapter for the medium, and by inference, closed another one.
Avedon seemed caught between worlds: Art and commerce – fashion and photojournalism – the theater of post-war romance and the hard existential confrontations of the 1960’s. But he was also determined to create a space for his work that absorbed the best of all traditions regardless of their seeming incompatibility. Picasso did this regularly with his paintings so it seemed reasonable to assume that it would be possible to do it in photography. Avedon was determined to obliterate the distinctions between high and low art, or art and commerce, as did many other artists in the same period – but of course those boundaries were never destroyed but merely reconfigured to new parameters (set by those in power), as they are very much with us today. But Avedon does not fit easily into the fine art niche – unlike the ironic whimsy of pop, or the insular belles-lettres of conceptual art, Avedon made work that radically resisted any system or genre. His commendable refusal to engage in the frivolous, insipid irony that was then (and now) in fashion in the world of fine art placed him, for the most part, outside its domain, and its rarefied, airless, prestige.
His images were as direct as those of a photojournalist and as carefully constructed and fastidious as those of an advertising photographer, without being either. In short, Avedon’s ambition was to eradicate photographic boundaries and hierarchies across all genres and types. This was a fundamentally American, democratic idea (or ideal) – coming from Emerson and Whitman and translated into photographic space by Jacob Riis and Helen Levitt. This work was then turned by Avedon, in the darkroom, into a precisely rendered, formal work that insisted on being high “Art.” Those self-evident contradictions that Avedon navigated were not a weakness or a mistake, but rather a contradiction that was an essential part of the work’s power. Jane Livingston: “Avedon remains a member of a different tradition, even a different era. It is not so much that he is of an older generation as that his philosophical and psychological concerns belong to a larger, a late millennial stream of moral and aesthetic ideals. Avedon sits more comfortably among the many postwar writers, poets, actors, playwrights, philosophers he has photographed along the way – those members of a modernism whose traumatic severance from the romantic tradition has often been the very subject of their work …”5
That “traumatic severance from the romantic tradition” that Livingston acutely describes is something we see full force in his image from 1963, titled Times Square, New York City, November 22, 1963. History suddenly comes back front and center as a woman shows the camera the headlines from that day: President Shot Dead. The expression on the woman’s face, the matter-of-fact American vernacular used in the headline, and the over-sized font are chilling and perfectly capture the time in a way other pictures do not.
Typically, Avedon orchestrated the shot, taking copies of the paper to Times Square subway and asking people to pose for his camera, creating a dialog between photographer and viewer that is normally outside the domain of photojournalism. In a sense he used history to establish an exchange of looks across the frame – and now the subject is no longer an anonymous model but a fellow New Yorker – a traveler who had kindly stopped so that he could take her portrait as she looked across the no-man’s-land of the picture plane with something to say. This time Avedon isn’t just looking and framing, he’s listening. That makes all the difference. It is a history lesson in photography worthy of Cartier-Bresson or Helen Levitt, two masters that he revered. Yet Avedon never abandoned fashion photography in favor of documentary work, as he was comfortable moving from one to the other, but the fashion pictures from the sixties onward would be informed by his documentary work (and vice versa) in a way that helped shape his signature style.
For Americans in 1963 the days of 1956 were suddenly very far away and would not return again. History came back announcing itself, as it often does, with a funeral march, and America plunged hand over fist into history in the 1960’s in a way that would mark the country for the remainder of the century, and beyond. It would prove a maelstrom from which the self-assured America of the postwar years would not recover. The country itself would, of course, pick up the pieces and refashion a new social matrix, but it would prove a very different place that Avedon himself explored in subsequent bodies of work, such as those seen in the now classic book, “The Sixties.” In his photograph “Napalm Victim, Saigon 1971” Avedon confronts the historical in the present tense so we see the effects of the then often used term “napalm strike” up close and personal, with a large format camera that gets the details – and that intense look across the frame, from subject to photographer, that Avedon never flinched from. The players in the American “theater of war” (a term used by the American Defense Department) found their photographer – and it turned out to be the same person who had photographed two models on roller skates in Paris fifteen years earlier, but of course, not the same person at all. Avedon had grown up.
1 John Berger. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, 1973
2 Simon Schama. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Vintage, 1990
3 Gloria Emerson. Avedon Photographs a Harsh Vietnam. The New York Times, May 9, 1971
4 Michel Guerrin, “Avedon” Interview with Richard Avedon, Le Monde, July 1, 1993
5 Jane Livingston, Richard Avedon. The Art of Richard Avedon Evidence 1944-1994. Random House, 1994.