From Napalm to Beautiful Women.

Richard Avedon is a small man. His face is sunken in and he hides behind his white mane of hair and large tortoise-shell glasses. He is dressed in black velvet and has shiney shoes. He’s in the middle of the Sala delle Cariatidi in the Palazzo Reale in Milan explaining how an image of his is to be hung. Together we walk through the rooms of his exhibition (to be inaugurated on 17 January 1995 and running through 5 March, with Kodak and Versace as sponsors). The show is called Evidence (1944 – 1994). He asks for a coffee, a bottle of mineral water, and a piece of gianduiotto (a chocolate and hazelnut candy from Piedmont).

He says: “This building has a wonderful history. It was built in the eighteenth century, bombed in the last war, renovated then and again twenty years ago, and it’s still incredibly chaotic. In the ballroom, I’ve hung photographs of people dancing from the 1960s. There will be music by Gluck and Vivaldi in the background. So the ghost of the eighteenth century will be able to have a conversation with Twiggy, Jean Shrimpton, Penelope Tree and Verushka. This is the prelude. The beginning of another room will be dedicated to 1945 fashions in Paris – photographs of Dovima with the elephants, Suzy Parker, Marlene Dietrich and Marella Agnelli. The rest is fashion.”

What is fashion for you?

I’ve tried to get rid of the artificiality of women seen as ideas, and to transform them into real women who go into shops, walk down the street, and cry on the underground.

The show isn’t just about fashion.

It’s a combination of images from Italy and the United States, from the streets of New York and Harlem. I was influenced by the neorealism of Antonioni, Rossellini and Fellini, and I took pictures of street performers in Rome and Palermo. Then there are some portraits I did of actors like Chaplin, musicians, writers, intellectuals, and directors like Ford, Renoir and Marx. And portraits of Eisenhower and Kissinger.

In one room there are four photographs taken during the Vietnam years.

The first is Factory with Andy Warhol. It represents the sexual revolution of that time period. The second is Middle Class, which features the Ginsberg family. The third has to do with the people that wanted the war, The Mission Council who were the administrators of the war in Saigon. The fourth represents the movement against the war with The Chicago Seven.

What about the images of the working class?

In the following rooms there are portraits of the working class out West during the Reagan years, when he said that the country was seeing great prosperity. It wasn’t true, there was widespread unemployment. Mines were closing, things were really bad in agriculture and for sheep farmers as well. People didn’t have work and had to move around to look for work. They were the drifters. I have photographs at the Palazzo Reale taken in an insane asylum in southern Texas, and pictures of napalm victims in Vietnam. The finale comes from the Volpi Ball in Venice on New Year’s Eve in 1989 when the Berlin Wall fell. There you see the end of aristocracy and of communism. Finally, there’s a little room of portraits of my father in the last days of his life.

How does it feel to see this retrospective of yours?

The photographs have taken on a life of their own. I feel as though I’m organising an exhibition of many other photographers.

Do you like your own photographs?

If I didn’t, I wouldn’t show them.

What’s the difference between 1944 and 1994?

Fifty years of experience. The difference between a young man and one who is at the end of his life.

Have you changed a lot?

I feel alive when I take photographs. But my photographs always leave me feeling defeated. I am never able to put everything I know into them.

What do you know?

My influences are literary. I haven’t learned from other photographers.

Has your technique changed?

It has developed. I look for similarities between people that seem like opposites. I went to Washington one day to photograph Henry Kissinger. He told me, “Be kind.” I would have liked to have asked him what he meant by that. Should I have made Kissinger younger, taller, or thinner?

What’s it like working for The New Yorker or for Versace?

Sometimes I am in agreement with The New Yorker, and sometimes I am not. When I work for Versace, my work is creating an image that defines their advertising campaign. It’s different if I photograph a woman for myself.

What kind of plans do you have?

I’ve become a publicity machine and am no longer an artist. The part of me that gives interviews and talks about the creative process is the complete opposite of me as a photographer. I’ve become my own widow. When the shows are over, I’m not going to give any more interviews. I will go away and read and think up a new job.

You’ve been accused of playing both sides. An artist on one hand and a publicity machine on the other.

These accusations against photographers who work in advertising are attacks from jealous people lacking in imagination. Some photographers go to the foundations and beg to hold an exhibition or go off and marry rich women. Or worse yet, they become martyrs with a following. This is because they don’t know how to make money. I don’t beg foundations or the government for money. I earn my living working with magazines and by doing advertising campaigns.

What types of women appeal to you?

Generous, intelligent women with a sense of humour and the ability to make me laugh. Women with a strong character.

Do you have a Jewish background?

The photographs of my father, Jacob Israel Avedon, speak a lot to my Jewishness. My Jewishness can be seen in my humanitarian interests. I’ve never put the focus on Jewish guilt the way Woody Allen has. Being Jewish is one of the things I’m most proud of in my life because I inherited a passion for intellectual culture and family values.

What about your children? Are you close to John?

He’s a writer. He’s finishing a book with the Dalai Lama, with whom he travelled for five years. We are very close. We talk and laugh about work.

Are you anxious about the future?

No. I would like to have more time. I am entering into my final act, and my hero is Matisse because he completely reinvented himself in old age. That is my dream.


13th January, 1995

The Berlin Wall: Richard Avedon’s Rendezvous with History