Watch it, buddy.

The opening line in the American Masters documentary on Richard Avedon is this or something very much like it:

“To be an artist, to be a photographer, you have to nurture the things that most people discard, to keep them alive in order to tap them.”

I’m not sure if it is a professional mandate to love this man’s portraits, but I feel that it’s nearly obligatory. Not that loving this man’s portraits is very difficult–they are compelling and dynamic, both easily read and as deep as anything. Watching this documentary, and seeing a few of his contact sheets, you can come to understand being a good editor contributes to being a great photographer. Avedon took many, many, many very ordinary frames of portraiture, but the ones he picked to print all have a momentary quirkiness that makes it a portrait of a personality, rather than of a face.

This is encouraging. I often find the most compelling images to be not a pleasant face properly lit and turned just so, but a face bent in some kind of ridiculous passing moment that shows the heights or depths of intensity and individuality. They aren’t always flattering in a top-of-the-piano kind of way, but they are, I think, a bit truer in the sense that these moments show what is beneath the cracks of a facade most of us wear around…the whole “we all wear masks” thing, with the knowledge that masks can be slipped off.

I have to think that I find these unflattering portraits more compelling because the function in the same way memory works; not in static generalities, but rather in moments that deviate from the norm. That is, the purpose of a portrait is not to preserve a baseline, but to preserve the exception is each of us. Because, after all, that is what makes each of us interesting…not the ways we are normal, but the rather the ways we are deviant, however slightly, however transiently.


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