One of my favorite photo documentaries is Darkness & Light, which is a fantastic look into the mind and work of Richard Avedon. A lot of people know Avedon from his photographs in the American West – bold monochrome portraits set against stark white backgrounds or “that poster.” You know the one – it features a nude Nastassja Kinski lying on a concrete floor entangled with a massive Burmese python. Originally shot for Vogue, the poster went on to sell millions of copies.
Avedon’s career spanned six decades and his work bridged the gap between art and commerce in a way that few others managed to do – either before or since – and yet still he felt dissatisfied with all that he had accomplished as a photographer.
“I’ve never been able to put all I know into a photograph,” he said. “A photograph can be an adjective, a phrase. It can even be a sentence or a paragraph, but it can never be a chapter. So it’s been a lifetime of frustration in terms of expressing myself because of the limitations of the visual image. I believe in it-but it’s limited.”
Avedon has been at or near the the top of my list of favorite photographers for the better part of three decades but honestly it’s still hard for me to articulate why I feel such a connection to his work. There’s an obvious technical mastery of the medium, but I could say the same for dozens of photographers whose work doesn’t hold my interest in the same way or resonate as deeply as that of Avedon. So what is it that makes his work so compelling to me? Does he deserve the accolades and if so, why?
I was talking to my friend Hugh Talman and happened to have my little Zoom H2 with me and asked if we could hit the record button since the odds are pretty good that at least one amazing story will emerge. Hugh recently retired from a 33-year tenure at the Smithsonian Museum of American History, first as a darkroom tech and then as a photographer. Before that, he spent 12 years at the National Archives where he printed many of Matthew Brady’s glass plates from the Civil War as well as the work Timothy O’Sullivan did as part of the Western Survey. His knowledge and experience in all things photographic is staggering and if anyone could answer the question, it would be him.
You can catch up with Hugh on Instagram @hughtalman.