December 8, 2023

What is our favorite image of Richard Avedon? The one with the Texan teenager with the disemboweled rattlesnake in his hands? The one with Nastassja Kinski with the python slithering over her body? The one with Dovima with the elephants dressed in Dior? cerulean covered in bees?, the portrait of Marilyn Monroe? It’s the same, whatever, no one who admires the work of the great American photographer (New York, 1923-San Antonio, Texas, 2004), or who is simply interested in photography, or is curious about the history of this trade and art, or for the history of culture in general you should miss the exhibition Avedon, Behind the Scenes: 1964-1980 that has been presented this Wednesday, July 20, at the FotoNostrum gallery in Barcelona with the category of world premiere.

The exhibition (visitable until October 2) consists essentially of 130 photographs by Gideon Lewin, right hand of Avedon for 16 years, which exceptionally testify to the way of working of the master, especially in the field of fashion, from the sixties to the eighties, offering an intimate look at his creative universe, the back room of genius so to speak. They are images of making of of the photos that would later become world icons of photography. There they are, documented, the sessions in Japan with the supermodel Veruschka and sumo wrestlers for Vogueor the ones starring Rene Russo, or those of Anjelica Huston in Ireland and those of Baja California with Raquel Welch, and the photos that Gideon Lewin took of a master class de Avedon from 1967 attended by Hiro, Lucas Samaras and Diane Arbus! The hilarious photo of Avedon inspecting the untanned buttocks of two models with their swimsuits lowered and the spectacular portrait of the master with a short-toed eagle flying from his falconer’s gloved hand. Moving to say the least, the portraits of Avedon by Lewin in front of the photos he took of his father who was terminally ill with cancer and which meant recovering contact with his mother after years of bad relationship. And enigmatic the portrait of the photographer shown by Lewin behind a mask with the face of Avedon himself.

An exhibition, with a photo of the first young Avedon surrounded by photos of himself and who seems absorbed in his own talent, or with those of the assembly of his famous exhibition at the Metropolitan that marked a before and after in the consideration of photography as fine art, so full of polysemy, of crossed meanings, of mirrors, that it would delight Susan Sontag. A Sontag, by the way, that placed Avedon among the great masters that interested him in his about photography (Edhasa, 1981) and who collected his quote as an anthology: “Photographs have a reality for me that people do not have. It is through photography that I get to know them”. Through Lewin’s we get to know him better.

Avedon with an eagle in Ireland in 1969.
Avedon with an eagle in Ireland in 1969.GIDEON LEWIN

The exhibition also includes 13 original photos by Avedon himself, among them the one of Marilyn cited (from May 1957), another of Brigitte Bardot and a priceless one of Dustin Hoffman in bed with Anne Bancroft on the set of the filming of The graduate in 1967 (“Are you trying to seduce me Mrs. Robinson?”: obviously yes, goofball); and a series of materials (magazines, images, handwritten texts) that complement the immersion in his world. All the content of the exhibition, which occupies the entire space on two floors of FotoNostrum, is part of the private collection of the well-known fashion designer Joanna Mastroianni, Lewin’s partner, who also shows some of her clothing models at the Gallery. She, who is the curator, and Lewin have presented the exhibition, the first in Spain on the figure of Avedon, and have guided a tour of it, full of first-hand anecdotes.

Gideon Lewin, with a photographic career of his own after years as Avedon’s assistant and the look of a General Custer who would have survived Little Bighorn, has explained how he worked with the maestro “side by side, 24 hours a day”, giving him his creative task as he takes care of a multitude of practical aspects, from lighting to printing photos. “I was the catalyst for Avedon’s creativity, I solved problems, I took care of everything”, he has maintained after emphasizing that friendship has always united them. He has explained that Avedon had very high quality standards, photographing over and over again until he achieved perfection and beauty. He has described that his work in his studio, which he preferred, was very dynamic, with models that did not stop moving, jumping, dancing; it was a non-static job and you had to accompany them with the light. Every person who was photographed was treated like a star.” Everything, of course, was then analog.

Gideon Lewin next to the photo of Avedon with a mask.
Gideon Lewin next to the photo of Avedon with a mask.

Mastroianni, with a certain extravagant air under an ostentatious black patent leather kepi, has highlighted how Lewin’s photos “bring back to life” Avedon’s studio and bear witness to what was that transcendental era of photography and culture. Divided into different sections, the exhibition documents how the studio worked and how different productions were dealt with, some as famous as the one mentioned in Japan, which required 26 truckloads of material and 20 days of filming for what was the most expensive company in Condé. Nast and which gave rise to 26 pages in Vogue.

Avedon, in front of one of the photos he took of his father.
Avedon, in front of one of the photos he took of his father.Gideon Lewin

When this newspaper asked Lewin about the secret of Avedon’s excellence and after the light jumped and we were left in the dark for a few moments when mentioning the photographer’s name, his former collaborator replied: “He was a creative genius. He was always looking for new projects and challenges. He not only photographed, but investigated new ideas. The secret of him was the brain, a brilliant mind of creator. He knew how to look at life. And I was there to make it work.” He has recalled that Avedon always wanted to be a portrait painter, a format in which he excelled, “but life led him to fashion, and the critics acclaimed that part of his work more.” His main project, he has continued, was to photograph the people of the West of the United States, three years in the eighties traveling through those harsh lands —in the wake of Walker Evans—, 17 States, 700 people, and photographing, outside of context in endless whiteness, to common and marginal or vulnerable people with an existential aura that almost revealed the marrow of the soul.

Lewin did not participate in that enterprise and, in fact, the role of portraitist is not the determining factor in Lewin’s photo exhibition, which opts for a “happier” Avedon (ie, the bottoms of Baja California). But here and there appears the Avedon closest to the experience of an Arbus (“with whom they were good friends and whom he helped”). Precisely about the photographer (born the same year as Avedon and who committed suicide at the age of 48), Mastroianni told a story about her relationship with Lewin: when Arbus published his first portfolio, he gave a copy to Lewin and he told him that better sell it too because she was short of money; so Arbus gave him a plant, a ficus. Then, of course, the photographer’s first portfolio acquired mythical status (and a price to match). The coda is that the ficus died a week after Diane Arbus committed suicide.

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