Before his death a couple weeks ago, I had never paid all that much attention to Richard Avedon outside of gazing admiringly at his portraits in The New Yorker each week. I knew he was a legendary photographer, dating back to his innovative fashion photography in the 1950s and continuing throughout a long life. But I happened to watch a series of archived interviews with Avedon by Charlie Rose on television last week, and I found the photographer’s description of his working method to be helpful with some of my own pictures.
Each month I take two or three photographs for a tiny newspaper called Northwest Senior News. I’ve been doing it for a little over a year now; they got my name somehow after I had a gallery show last summer and called. I pointed out to them that the photos in my show didn’t have a single human being in them, but for some reason that didn’t seem to matter. Nor did the fact that I don’t really consider myself a professional at all, at least from a technical perspective. My camera is a consumer-level Sony digital that fits in my pocket, and I don’t have any special lighting equipment or lenses or screens. Still, though, I liked the idea of getting paid to explore portraiture. I always liked the idea of photographing people, especially their faces. But I’ve always been shy about asking them.
Anyway, over the last few months I’d been in a bit of a rut. My editor likes me to capture the subject doing something that helps illustrate what the story is about. If the person volunteers to read to children, for example, I’d be asked to photograph him or her picking out books. But I hate the fact that those photos have to be staged. The subject wouldn’t really be picking out books. That’s just what we would set up. I preferred to just take a simple, honest, straightforward shot of them in an applicable environment but just looking at the camera.
Yet I knew the pictures needed something more—more animation, more that showed the personality behind whatever it was they were doing that got them in the paper. And that’s where Avedon comes in. Talking with Rose, the photographer described how important it was to talk at length with his subject and really get a sense conversationally who that person was. As they were talking, Avedon would begin to snap photos. I know from experience when you do that, you get a lot of terrible shots of someone talking. Chances are whatever syllable they are pronouncing when the shutter snaps will get their mouth frozen in some seemingly awkward position. So I’ve shied away from snapping as people talked.
But after listening to Avedon, I decided to give it a try. And while I’m not saying that the results were at that legendary artist’s level, I’m happy with the results and, more importantly, a believer in the process. My first subject was an 87-year-old retired doctor named Grant Hughes, who is pictured above. Sprightly and vigorous for his age, Dr. Hughes preaches the values of optimism, and I enjoyed snapping away as he talked enthusiastically. I feel like a couple of the shots I got really capture his vitality, and thus really stand for who he is. And I have to thank Richard Avedon for that.