Saturday, March 03, 2007

Henry Kissinger's portrait by Richard Avedon

Because this beautiful essay by Richard Avedon is such a near-perfect summary of the mystery and art of photography, I don't see the need to read anything about photography ever again.


Henry Kissinger's Portrait
by Richard Avedon

I once went to Washington for what they call a "photo opportunity" with Henry Kissinger. As I led him to the camera, he said a puzzling thing. He said, "Be kind to me." I wish there had been time to ask him exactly what he meant, although it's probably clear. Now, Kissinger knows a lot about manipulation, so to hear his concern about being manipulated really made me think. What did he mean? What does it really mean to "be kind" in a photograph? Did Kissinger want to look wiser, warmer, more sincere than he suspected he was? Do photographic portraits have different responsibilities to the sitter than portraits in paint or prose? Isn't it trivializing and demeaning to make someone look wise, noble (which is easy to do), or even conventionally beautiful when the thing itself is so much more complicated, contradictory, and therefore fascinating? Was he hoping that the photograph would reveal a perfect surface? Or is it just possible that he could have wished - as I would have if I were being photographed - that "being kind" would involve allowing something more complicated about me to burn through: my anger, ineptitude, strength, vanity, my isolation. If all these things are aspects of character, would I not, as an artist, be unkind to treat Kissinger as a merely noble face? Does the perfect surface have anything to do with the artistic integrity of a portrait?

A photographic portrait is a picture of someone who knows he's being photographed, and what he does with this knowledge is as much a part of the photograph as what he's wearing or how he looks. He's implicated in what's happening, and he has a certain real power over the result. The way someone who's being photographed presents himself to the camera and the effect of the photographer's response on that presence is what the making of a portrait is about. The philosopher Roland Barthes once said a very wise thing about photography. He said, "Photography is a captive of two intolerable alibis. On the one hand, 'ennobled art pictures.' On the other hand, 'reportage' which derives its prestige from the object. Neither conception is entirely correct." He said, "Photography is a Text, a complex meditation on meaning."

What Barthes recognized is that we need a new vocabulary to talk about photography. Not "art" versus "reality," "artifice" versus "candor," "subjective" versus "objective" - photography falls in between these classifications, and that's why it's so impossible to answer questions like "Is photography really art?" and "Is this an accurate picture of your friend?" As I have said on other occasions, "All photographs are accurate. None is the truth."

I don't think pictures have to justify their existence by calling themselves works of art or photographic portraits. They are memories of a man; they are contradictory facets of an instant of his life as a subject - and of our lives as viewers. They are, as Barthes said, texts, and as such they exist to be read, interpreted, and argued over - not categorized and judged.

So who is Henry Kissinger? And what, or who, is this photograph? Is it just a shadow representation of a man? Or is it closer to a doppelgänger, a likeness with its own life, an inexact twin whose afterlife may overcome and replace the original?

When I see my pictures in a museum and watch the way people look at my pictures, and then turn to the pictures myself and see how alive the images are, they seem to have little to do with me. They have a life of their own. Like the actors in Pirandello, or in Woody Allen's movie The Purple Rose of Cairo, when the actors leave the screen and join the audience. They have confrontations with the viewers Photography is completely different from every other form of art. I don't really remember the day when I stood behind my camera with Henry Kissinger on the other side. I'm sure he doesn't remember it either. But this photograph is here now to prove that no amount of kindness on my part could make this photograph mean exactly what he - or even I - wanted it to mean. It's a reminder of the wonder and terror that is a photograph.


Anonymous said...

Thanks for posting this!

Anonymous said...

Slightly disingenuous comments from Avedon. On one hand, he admits to having the ability to make his subject appear noble, wise, etc., and on the other hand, he says a photograph is what it is, as if he had nothing to do with it. He had everything to do with what image of Kissinger he wanted us to see.

ZS said...

You're right, and that's the great paradox of photographic portraits. The photographer, or the publisher, chooses the image that they want to put forth, but it's also a true recording of the moment. There are many tricks used to make a person appear as the photographer wants to show them, but once the image is out in the world, unless there's descriptive text, the image is on it's own. However, a great photographer like Richard Avedon absolutely knows the nuances in a face that will lead a portait to be read with sympathy, dislike, fear or attraction. I find Kissenger's portrait to have a air of malevolence, although others might read that as strength or directness. Obviously, my reading of this portait comes from my own feelings about Henry Kissinger, but even with my strong feelings toward him I found something sympathetic in this photo despite my desire to see him as a monster. I find great beauty in the nuances of this portrait of a war criminal.

ZS said...

Anytime Jen Beckman!

Jen Beckman is super.

Anonymous said...

The harsh lighting gives that "hitler-moustache" look. Was that intentional?

ZS said...

For real, I don't think the Hitler moustache was intentional, but what the hell do I know? But maybe. The slightly overhead and direct lighting makes him look a little leaner and more menacing. If was I lighting him I would have lit him with a flashlight underneath his chin, a la Blair Witch. Or I would light him however they lit the emperor in Star Wars.

Many of Avedon's portraits have diffused light, so there is a stylistic difference.

ZS said...

Check out the portrait he made of Cheri Honkala.

Anonymous said...

I think that portrait was part of a series Avedon did for Issue 224 of Rolling Stone. The collection (a collection?) of these images is at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson. I remember this one when I leafed through them last year. Most startling was the pic of Mark Felt, post Deep Throat-ing.

pmyers said...

Let us not forget that this man is a known war criminal responsible for many thousands of lives in places such as Cambodia, central America and other areas where the U.S. have illegally interfered. Be kind to him? P Myers