Avedon’s Centenary at the Met: Monumental Photomurals Take the Stage

Sandra Bertrand


The first thing I noticed when entering the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s current show, Richard Avedon: MURALS, is the size of his subjects. Three monumental panels accost the eyes. Architects of the Vietnam War, their anti-war protestors, and members of Andy Warhol’s Factory surround the viewer, alternately imperious, engaging, indifferent, and in some instances, titillating in their nakedness.

For those of us who cut our teeth on the big screen, all we have to do is conjure cinema’s heroes and heroines of yesteryear—Greta Garbo, John Wayne, Cary Grant, Sophia Loren, Audrey Hepburn—to realize their exaggerated place in the stratosphere of our imaginations. For Richard Avedon, capturing celebrity through his lens was second nature, so it’s fitting that such larger-than-life portrait stills and murals, the longest 35 feet, became an elemental part of his career. 

There is no hierarchy of size on display here. The 10-foot-high likes of Vietnam-era Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker, 60s activist Abbie Hoffman, and drag superstar Candy Darling all stare down at the viewer from their separate frieze collectives to dizzying effect. Where to look first?  One’s eyes bounce from one line-up to the next, the stark white walls accentuating the power of these black-and-white giants.

This was no easy task. To achieve the desired effect, Avedon put his hand-held Rolleiflex aside for a tripod-mounted Deardorff 8x10 field camera. Quite a switch.



Andy Warhol and members of The Factory, New York, October 30, 1969 

This is the most wickedly playful of the three panels—a group tableau created at Warhol’s Factory over a period of months, with several outtakes on display over the span. A careful study on the left reveals filmmaker Paul Morrissey possessively placing his hand on the shoulder of the naked Joe Dellesandro and to the far right, Warhol positioned with his now clothed protegee behind him. In between these pictorial bookends, the Factory cast is assembled off-handedly, with the standout image a trio of naked male actors, coyly enacting Warhol’s version of Ruben’s Three Graces.  Even a casual glimpse reveals the nude and strikingly alluring Candy Darling with her own penis on display—still a disorienting image to this day.

It’s interesting to note that Avedon has said his photographs don’t go below the surface; that the stripping of clothes doesn’t bring the onlooker closer to anything.  “I have great faith in surfaces. A good one is full of clues.”



The Chicago Seven, Chicago, November 5, 1969

These radical anti-Vietnam protestors face Avedon’s lens with all the vulnerability and uncertainty you might expect from a police line-up. The exception may be Abbie Hoffman, the most charismatic of the group. With his bad-boy locks, caught with his eyes shut, he seems impervious to the moment.  Conversely, Tom Hayden appears like the abject adolescent whose hand was just caught in the cookie jar.

It's understandable Avedon chose to immortalize this group on such a scale.  Their combined actions and counter-culture visibility epitomized the anger of the times. And their indictment was the result of the newly passed Civil Rights Act of 1968, which made it a federal crime to cross state lines with the intent to cause a riot.



The Mission Council, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 28, 1971

Avedon flew to Saigon at his own expense to photograph the ambassadors and counselors of the Vietnam conflict. It could have been a thankless undertaking, with but a few minutes to capture this crusty and expressionless lot. But posing General Creighton W. Adams front and center, the only one wearing  a uniform, speaks volumes.  Flanked by these grim, grey-suited columns of corporate authority, Adams was known as the general who replaced a ”search and destroy” agenda with “clean and hold.”  One can only imagine what a perfect subject Ukraine’s current champion president of his people would have been for the photographer. 

On the centenary of the photographer’s birth, it’s worth taking a look at the man behind the camera along with his myriad of accomplishments. Little wonder that many still think of him as the consummate celebrity photographer.  After an early stint at Harper’s Bazaar, followed by over 20 years at Vogue, he became the first staff photographer of the New Yorker, where his style of portraiture helped redefine the look of the magazine.

Even if Avedon’s beginnings in the Bronx were within breathing distance of the Big City lights, it wasn’t until he joined a Young Men’s Hebrew Association (YMHA) camera club at the age of 12 that photography entered his mind. Then WWII happened and he was assigned the role of Photographer’s Mate Second Class. “My job was to identity photographs. I must have taken pictures of one hundred thousand faces before it occurred to me, I was becoming a photographer."

Such exposure to the face of war and its human costs, left an indelible impression. Certainly, many of his projects reflect a heightened social consciousness. His extensive work during the Civil Rights Movement, the Rolling Stone collective portrait, The Family—a closeup of the American power elite at the time of the 1976 Bicentennial—and the poignant study of his father Jacob Israel Avedon, have passed the test of time.  Major museum retrospectives have followed. The Museum of Modern Art mounted an in-depth examination in 1974 and the Metropolitan Museum of Art presented two important exhibitions in 1978 and 2002.

The art of Richard Avedon is set in countless silver gelatin prints for the world to see.  But what do we see exactly and how do we process it?  He has said that the camera lies all the time. But does it?  Any artist chooses what they want to write about or paint. The photographer chooses the moment. And in Avedon’s case, he’s left us the clues.

All we must do is look carefully. And if we’re lucky, perhaps truth will emerge.


Richard Avedon, MURALS runs through October 1, 2023, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.


For Highbrow Magazine


Image Sources:

--Metropolitan Museum of Art

--Max Kiesler (Flickr, Creative Commons)



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