This is a sumptuous selection from Richard Avedon’s immense body of work. In a brief preface, he comments that he has divided his book into three parts. He suggests the first section is about the “illusion of laughter” and the “fine line between hilarity and panic.” The next two sections deal with the “illusion of power” and the “loss of all illusions.” These words do not do the photographs justice, nor do they adequately convey the complexity of work within each section, but they do emphasize the essential somberness of Avedon’s vision.
Avedon has not followed a strictly chronological sequence. His thematic approach makes that impossible, and as he remarks, he has not lived chronologically. Rather he has shuttled back and forth in time, and his photographs are full of echoes and foreshadowings. In this respect, his sensibility is akin to that of the great modernist artists who have fragmented chronology and the visual space in order to create the unity and universality of art that transcends time and place.
The photographs are stunning. Image 263 (consult the book’s excellent visual index) presents the pianist/composer Oscar Levant in a half-grimace, half-smile—there is something ghastly and yet clownlike in his grooved face and jutting lower teeth. The focus on Dwight Eisenhower (image 219) is so tight it is as if he had been caught pressing his face up against a glass, yet his features also seem drawn back, as in a Roman death mask. Ezra Pound (image 232) shuts his eyes tightly as if the dissonance around him is more than he can bear. But Avedon is not merely a photographer of the famous; there are many studies of unknown individuals and institutions—image 238, for example, of five men in the East Louisiana State Hospital, which evokes the isolation of illness.