REVIEW I saw my deceased grandfather before I saw Groucho Marx. In Richard Avedon's 1972 photograph of the aging comedian, Marx's push-broom mustache, here a baleen of gray bristles, is the only obvious identifying feature in what otherwise looks to be a portrait of an elderly Jewish man. Marx's eyes like Marilyn Monroe's in Avedon's famous 1957 portrait of the star seeming to want out of her skin avoid the camera, looking off glassily toward something in the distance. Or perhaps they are trying to look at nothing.
Of all the faces in "Richard Avedon: Photographs 1946-2004," the first large-scale retrospective of the late photographer's work that makes its only U.S. stopover at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the ones crumpled with age, the ones closest to death, hold my attention most. The ubiquitous white backdrop and large format camera used in many shots allow the viewer an intimate look at the liver spots, wrinkles, fleshy furrows, stray hairs, scars, and other accumulated physical tallies that testify to what Susan Sontag called photography's ability to depict "time's relentless melt."
As in my encounter with the Marx portrait, you often notice the physical attributes of Avedon's subjects before you register who they are. John Ford, replete with eye-patch, resembles a pumpkin caving in. Isak Dinesen (uncannily resembling Little Edie Beale in a brooch-adorned knit cap) is all hollowed cheekbones and cracked lips, and to quote Geoff Dyer's wonderful catalog essay, "looks like she was once the most beautiful woman in the world about 2,000 years ago." The exhibit contrasts Avedon's portrait of Andy Warhol's scarred torso, gnarled into a Weston-worthy bell pepper by Valerie Solanias's gunshots, with the Apollonian perfection of the male superstars in the famous panorama of Warhol and his Factory Avedon shot prior to the artist's near death experience.
Death has been a subject for photographers since photography's invention, as much as it has developed as trope within writing on photography. Sontag certainly touched on photo-mortality, but it was taken up most melodramatically by Roland Barthes, who declared: "All young photographers who are at work in the world, determined upon the capture of actuality, do not know that they are agents of Death."
It would be foolish to brand Avedon with such a label, but there is something to be said for his willingness to allow his subjects' place on this mortal coil to show through so clearly. Avedon was probably the most unsparing of 20th century photography's great portraitists. But in their calculated presentation of their subject's imperfections, his photographs manage at the very least to seem uncontrived perhaps the best compliment a photograph can attract.
RICHARD AVEDON: PHOTOGRAPHS 19462004 Through Nov. 29, $9-$15 (free first Tues. and half-off Thurs. evenings). MonTues. and Fri.Sun., 10 a.m.5:45 p.m.; Thurs., 10 a.m.8:45 p.m. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, 151 Third St., SF. (415) 357-4000. www.sfmoma.org