American photographer Richard Avedon was as intrigued by families as by fashion. A new exhibit of his work examines the ties that bind.
A picture is worth a thousand words, but can it define just one? This spring, the National Museum of American Jewish History (NMAJH) presents “Family Affairs,” an exhibition of 69 individual shots by Richard Avedon and a series of portrait murals. Celebrated for revolutionizing fashion photography for the likes of Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar, Avedon in this collection of his work challenges the traditional sense of familial ties.
Few of the images depict actual biological relations, though one is the massive photomural of beat poet Allen Ginsberg and his extended family. In contrast, the group portraits such as that of Andy Warhol and The Factory prove that despite a lack of shared blood, individuals can nonetheless be unified by deeply intimate connections. “Avedon was not necessarily negotiating the biological family, but expanding the sense of connectivity beyond biology to connections of politics, of power, of culture, and also asking whether a family necessarily needed to be truly defined by biology,” says NMAJH’s Josh Perelman, chief curator and director of exhibitions and collections.
The question of power and politics is evidently pursued in Avedon’s photo-series “The Family,” which was produced for Rolling Stone and published on the eve of the 1976 presidential elections. From candidates Jimmy Carter and Gerald Ford to a slew of government officials, activists, and journalists, Avedon documented the political, media, and corporate elite shaping the course of the country at the time. “Avedon was really looking at the family of politics, and how various connections of power link different people together in sometimes very usual and sometimes less expected ways,” says Perelman. “As the country prepares for a presidential election in 2016, the portraits evoke comparisons between the nature of political leadership then and now.”
“Family Affairs” proves to be a unique presentation: “The Family” is displayed in its original Rolling Stone publication, and a photo booth invites visitors to participate in the exhibition and think about Avedon’s artistic portraiture versus the function of selfies in our present-day lives. “Avedon’s work brings us back to a time that lives on in popular memory with a certain sense of nostalgia,” says Perelman. “By documenting that period through portraiture, he not only provides a new and complex interpretation, but he humanizes those events. We are confronted with the individuals who were directly involved. We not only have a chance to revisit the events themselves but have a very personal connection to them in a way that I think is not always traditional for a history museum.” On view through August 2 at the National Museum of American Jewish History, 101 S. Independence Mall E., 215- 923-3811
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