SITES editor Ann Carper recently sat down with the curator of The Kennedys | Portrait of a Family: Photographs by Richard Avedon. Read on for a continuation of their in-depth conversion:
Q: What makes The Kennedys different from other Richard Avedon and Kennedy exhibitions and books?
A: This is the intersection of two icons. Other exhibitions and books by Avedon or about John F. Kennedy and his family cover a larger span of time and multiple events. These photographs were produced within the course of a few hours. By studying this group of photographs, we can focus on the time between Kennedy’s election and inauguration.
Q: So there were two photo sessions on one day, but for different magazines?
A: Yes. After the Harper’s Bazaar photo session on January 3, 1961, he photographed the Kennedys for LOOK magazine. The LOOK photographs are very different from the HB photographs! The most obvious difference is that many of the LOOK images are in color instead of black and white. The LOOK photos present the first family as the Kennedys were usually presented in various picture magazines. The environment (their home on the beach) and their activities (swimming in the ocean, playing in the yard, playing inside with dolls) provide information that shapes the viewer’s perception of the Kennedys. The Harper’s Bazaar photographs, by contrast, strip the context away, and all that is left is the person in front of the camera. We have to look at the person and develop opinions about that person.
Q: What do we learn from looking at the contact sheets?
A: We learn about the photographer’s image selection. Most people, when selecting a portrait, will pick the image in which the subject looks happy and is looking at the camera. Avedon did make those kinds of pictures, but he didn’t choose those. He opted for the images in which the subject exhibits physical and/or psychological tension, as well as tension within the composition.
Q: Tell us more about Richard Avedon. How did he get his start?
A: Avedon (1923-2004) was born and raised in New York City. His father owned a dress shop so Avedon was around women’s fashions and advertising all the time. When he joined the Merchant Marines, he was assigned to make photographs for identification cards. Starting in 1945, after the Merchant Marines, he began bringing together the sensibilities he had been gathering to bring to his vision of photography. About 1942, Alexy Brodovitch, a famed designer, was the art director at Harper’s Bazaar. He noticed Avedon’s potential as a unique photographer and brought him on board. The two men, along with editors Carmel Snow and Diana Vreeland, formed a powerful team that produced visually and intellectually exciting content for the magazine. At the time, fashion magazines were on the front edge of graphic design.
Q: If Avedon were still alive, what would you like to ask him about the photo session?
A: I would like a blow by blow of the events, and to know what he overheard! There were so many people: some were working in relation to the photo session, some just hanging out, and others working for Kennedy. In fact, on January 3, 1961, the U.S. severed diplomatic relations with Cuba, so I wonder if between frames there were people saying things like, "Eisenhower’s staff is on the phone and they’ve got news." I’m also curious about how the LOOK magazine session came to be. I have some ideas, but would like to confirm them. It would tell me more about how he operated as a working photographer.