Fuck History, Let’s Dance: Richard Avedon in Paris, 1956
Man forgets that he produces images to find his way in the world; he now tries to find his way in images. He no longer deciphers his own images, but lives in their function. Imagination has become hallucination.
Towards a Philosophy of Photography -Vilem Flusser
Photography, which has so many narcissistic uses, is also a powerful instrument for depersonalizing our relation to the world; and the two uses are complementary.
On Photography – Susan Sontag
The picture was titled by Richard Avedon: Robin Tattersall and Suzy Parker, models, Place de la Concorde; Paris, August 1 1956. As John Berger said of a nude by Albrecht Durer: “The result would glorify Man but the exercise presumed a remarkable indifference to who any one person really was.”1 By 1956 the brilliant American photographer Richard Avedon showed two models on roller skates on the Place de la Concorde exhibiting a particular kind of movement: carefree. They are youthful, deliriously in the moment, and only a little younger than Avedon himself who was then thirty-three. It is the kind of ecstatic action that we see in Hollywood musicals, including Funny Face (1957), the film very loosely based on Avedon’s life as a photographer for Condé Nast in which Fred Astaire played Avedon. It is of course a publicity photograph meant for easy consumption in a magazine, but for that very reason there is something that we can learn from it about where American sensibilities were then, and the road that the country as a whole would eventually choose to take. Avedon himself ultimately embraced a different path far different from the promise of that picture made in the summer of 1956. What can that picture tell us today?
The male hand pointing right beautifully articulates the counterpoint of the woman’s scarf pointing left. Female and male balance each other out and the massive Place de la Concorde looks like an enormous stage with a small row of classical toy buildings in the distance – Avedon’s humanist leanings are fully operational as the models tower above the man made landscape – their ecstasy a triumph of Western liberal democracy and liberty expressing a newfound freedom: sexual, social and economic, all wrapped up in one package and ready-to-go, as the Americans say. It is a triumphant image. The statue of Louis XV sitting heroically on a horse that stood gloomily in the center of the square has been replaced by a joyous American couple ready to set the world right. They aren’t just dancing, they are saying fuck you to history. They are saying the moment is now. It’s here, let’s dance. History: FUCK YOU. How do we know that history is being told to fuck off? Is such an idea even conceivable?
The Place de la Concorde, created to honor a living king, was originally named Place Louis XV when it premiered in 1755. Thirty-four years later the octagon shaped square was used during the French Revolution as the place that housed the infamous guillotine, and its name was temporarily changed to Place de la Revolution. Marie Antoinette, Charlotte Corday, Georges Danton, and Madame du Barry were some of the many that were guillotined there. In 1794, in a single month, thirteen hundred people were executed there, their blood poured into the open gutters. 2 It is a place that was meant to celebrate the power of kings and then to celebrate their extinction at the hands of the Revolution. What Avedon comes to celebrate is clear – it is a fresh start. That is what the image proclaims: this dance is meant to do away with history and its weight. Like the American musicals that it references, made during the same time period as this photograph, it suggests that transformation and joy are creative possibilities that are within reach for all of us, and history (symbolized by the government buildings in the distance) is something literally and figuratively behind us, a mere backdrop. Is Avedon’s enterprise possible?
In the late fifties Henri Cartier-Bresson was also in Paris shooting his hometown. His images speak of a different kind of place. In Place de la Concorde (1956) we see the careful geometry of parked cars as they seem to fence off empty areas that are strangely unpopulated, yet they are, as one would expect, loaded with history. Markers from the past, such as the obelisk in the foreground or the more distant Sacré-Cœur Basilica in the background act as a counterpoint to the neat rows of contemporary cars. Pictures such as Place de la Bastille (1958) more obviously let in the history that Avedon was so at pains to repudiate. But there is another image by Cartier-Bresson from the same year that calls Avedon’s bluff. On first glance there doesn’t seem to be much history in it at all. There are no marches against injustices to workers or students turning over cars because of some new colonial war. Something else is going on. In Untitled 1958 a couple is kissing in the street - an ephemeral, vernacular photograph surely - yet it is also a photograph that depicts history in the larger sense. How did Cartier-Bresson accomplish this?
The man and woman kissing are wrapped up in their personal history and the larger history, even if they are not aware of it, Cartier-Bresson is, and he is able to articulate what he sees pictorially. The over-lit clock, due to the long exposure, hanging from the ceiling behind the word “quais" (platform) catches our eye. The reason for this is that the clock does two things: First the time itself is barely readable because of the overexposed light emanating from the clock face. Secondly the lovers were lit and partially silhouetted by the light from the clock illuminating their kiss. This light attaches the experience of the kiss to a duration within various interlocking histories. There is the history of this particular couple (which we will never know), then the larger social history of the time and place that they are inhabiting (which we partly know) in the European postwar period, the Cold War, the class antagonism that was building, the Algerian war, Vietnam, etc. Cartier-Bresson put these people into time because photography cannot do that passively. A photographer must construct a space where time is a player, as consciously fabricated as in a film by Alain Resnais.
An advertising poster displaying modernist design and typography stands directly above another poster depicting a traditional landscape. The two posters and the couple are having a dialog thanks to Bresson's framing. Now, this is not unusual. If we go out in the street today we might find similar adverts that contain contemporary avant-garde designs next to conservative traditional modes, made to satisfy the wide range of visual tastes casually sharing the same wall space. But due to the placement in the frame, Cartier-Bresson creates a symbolic tension between the two conflicting design modes and the couple. This is a tension that is then echoed in the empty kiosk that separates the exterior world from the platform. The couple blend into the kiosk due to their dark coats - a kiosk that is strongly lit but empty suggesting absence, loss, or death.
These people are both free (in the philosophical sense of having free will) and stuck in time (in the physiological sense of the laws of physics). The clock is both an opening into a space because it is the present, and there is some freedom to choose in the present, and a death sentence from which there is no reprieve. This couple does what almost anyone would do under those condition; they seize the moment. Is it the right moment? We don’t know. The couple does not know, but the clock is ticking and they have stopped to kiss just between the outside world and the inside platform - they are in-between - suspended - putting history on hold long enough for one kiss - that's all they have. Once we understand this we emotionally understand their historical moment - in every sense.
What did Avedon see in the Place de la Concorde that August day? A couple dancing on skates who are not really a couple, but models that are being well paid to act as if they were a couple (and as if it were winter even though it is August). There is the crew who helped him in the shoot: make-up people, wardrobe, hair stylists, drivers, translators, assistants, etc. In short, all of the things that are missing from the shot - that are behind the camera - are what might have made that shot interesting. If only someone had been shooting Avedon and his crew there would be something compelling there - perhaps. But the master photographer's overwhelming sense of romantic spectacle, his minute attention to detail, and his sense of control within the frame - his great strengths - are precisely what limits his image as it is locked into a rudimentary romanticism from which it cannot escape.
Three years after Avedon, Jean-Luc Godard also filmed a couple walking down the street in Paris, this time the Champs-Élysées shot with a camera hidden in a bread cart. By doing so he incorporates the passersby who happen to be casually strolling down the street on a beautiful spring day in 1959, including one man trying to sell something to Jean-Paul Belmondo and Jean Seberg as they flirt and talk. In the Godard film, as well as in the Avedon picture, they are actors, but Godard has has done something very important that Avedon failed to do. He seized the opportunity to shoot his film guerrilla style on the streets. Godard said he shot his film in the style of cinéma vérité, as if making of a documentary about the making of a gangster film. In effect Godard merges Avedon’s romanticism with Cartier-Bresson’s attention to quotidian historical detail, and therein lies the charm and part of the genius of Breathless (1959).
What makes Avedon’s dismissal of the historical so damming is that in subsequent years American advertising, art, and fashion photography deviated only very slightly from the a-historical program outlined by Avedon in 1956. His photograph is a kind of template of an American idea, or ideal, that although he did not invent - it was prevalent at the time in Europe and the USA - he used it without reflecting on its consequences. Its power is so pervasive and and pernicious that it persists, in one form or another, to this day. To Avedon’s credit, he would be one of the first to move away from the artificiality and a-historicism of his own work that is as conceptually powerful as it is visually seductive.
The dark side to this concept is clear when we remember that 1956 was the year that the war in Vietnam passed from French hands to American hands. This was the year the South Vietnamese, with American backing, refused to hold elections (that would probably have been won by the Communists) and thereby set the stage for an attack by Communist-led guerrillas known as the Vietcong. It was also the year Graham Greene published The Quiet American in the United States, a brilliant and prescient indictment of colonial greed, moral corruption, and predatory sexuality in Southeast Asia. Greene’s novel remains unsurpassed as a moral critique of the war in the form of fiction. Avedon himself traveled to Vietnam in 1971 and said, “... all of the people that I have photographed in the last year and a half have been affected by Vietnam – as has all of American life. Vietnam is an extension – unfortunately – of everything sick in America.” 3
The war ended, and the North and South were reunited in a North Vietnamese/Communist victory in 1975. In a sense the burdens of European History in 1956 passed to American hands, just as the Americans, or at least the population at large, were most eager to disengage emotionally from the historical, as seen not only in Avedon’s image, but those photographers who used their images to sell not simply a product but an idea. That idea is - in a word - freedom. Freedom from history, freedom from class hierarchies, freedom from the urgency of death - freedom to escape restrictions on the self - and to move ever forward into greater progress, greater upward mobility, greater power.
That Avedon would choose a place as loaded with history as the Place de la Concorde is a credit to his chutzpah – and to the confident American sensibility (in 1956) that permeated the postwar years. Aside from Vietnam, the murder of the Kennedy brothers and Martin Luther King, the horrific atomization of a consumer driven culture, and the ascendancy of the corporate state and its resultant cultural stagnation were still in the future. Significantly Avedon’s image would be much copied, but would not be repeated, not even by Avedon himself, who turned mostly to highly realistic studio portraits. Throughout the sixties Avedon used a strobe light in front of a white seamless, eliminating the outside world altogether, concentrating on the facial and physiological demeanor of the major and minor players in the American scene of the following decades, collecting a kind of psychological portrait of his era. Jane Livingston: “Avedon remains a member of a different tradition, even a different era. It is not so much that he is of an older generation as that his philosophical and psychological concerns belong to a larger, a late millennial stream of moral and aesthetic ideals. Avedon sits more comfortably among the many postwar writers, poets, actors, playwrights, philosophers he has photographed along the way – those members of a modernism whose traumatic severance from the romantic tradition has often been the very subject of their work ...” 4 .
That “traumatic severance from the romantic tradition” that Livingston acutely describes is something we see full force in Avedon’s image from 1963, titled Times Square, New York City, November 22, 1963. History suddenly comes back front and center as a woman shows the camera the headlines from that day: President Shot Dead. The expression on the woman’s face, the matter-of-fact American vernacular used in the headline, and the over-sized font are chilling and perfectly capture the time in a way other pictures do not.
Typically Avedon orchestrated the shot, taking copies of the paper to Times Square and asking people to pose for his camera, creating a dialog between photographer and viewer that is normally outside the domain of photojournalism. In a sense he used history to establish an exchange of looks across the frame – and now the subject is no longer an anonymous model but a fellow New Yorker – a traveler who had kindly stopped so that he could take her portrait as she looked across the no-man’s-land of the picture plane with something to say. This time Avedon isn’t just looking and framing, he’s listening. That makes all the difference. It is a history lesson in photography worthy of Cartier-Bresson or Helen Levitt, two masters that he revered. Yet Avedon never abandoned fashion photography in favor of documentary work, as he was comfortable moving from one to the other, but the fashion pictures from the sixties onward would be informed by his documentary work (and vice versa) in a way that helped shape his signature style.
For Americans in 1963 the days of 1956 were suddenly very far away and would not return again. History came back announcing itself, as it often does, with a funeral march, and America plunged hand over fist into history. It would prove a maelstrom from which the self-assured America of the postwar years would not recover. The country itself would, of course, pick up the pieces and refashion a new social matrix, but it would prove a very different place that Avedon himself explored in subsequent series, such as those seen in the now classic book, The Sixties.
1 John Berger. Ways of Seeing. Penguin Books, 1973.
2 Simon Schama. Citizens: a Chronicle of the French Revolution. Vintage, 1990.
3 Gloria Emerson. Avedon Photographs a Harsh Vietnam. The New York Times, May 9, 1971.
4 Jane Livingston, Richard Avedon. The Art of Richard Avedon Evidence 1944-1994. Random House, 1994.