Details of Empathy: Rediscovering Richard Avedon

Curator Rebecca Senf’s newly inaugurated exhibition in Milan reveals the American photographer dazzling empathy for his subjects.

Self-portrait, Provo, Utah, August 20, 1980 © The Richard Avedon Foundation Richard Avedon

What can be said about the work of a photographer about whom so much has already been said? The work of the very great, however, never ceases to speak to us and amaze us. The newly inaugurated exhibition at Palazzo Reale, “Richard Avedon. Relationships,” invites visitors to explore an often-overlooked aspect of the work of one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century: relationships.

“When I was asked to create this exhibition, I was trying to think about a particular angle and a new way to think about Richard Avedon,” said Rebecca Senf, Chief Curator of the Center for Creative Photography collection and curator of the exhibition at Palazzo Reale. “I wanted to help people to connect with the photographs and as I was thinking about it, I realized how different Avedon’s portraits are when they have just one person, where the viewer can really focus just on that individual, and then the portraits with more than one person. In those pictures, the viewer can get a sense of the relationship between the two, or more, people captured in the photographs. Avedon was actually able to describe in the photographs how people related to each other. As a curator, the most effective thing is if I can show my idea to other people and they look at the pictures and they can see it, then they can discover the photographs themselves.”

Portrait of Malcolm X, New York, March 27, 1963. © The Richard Avedon Foundation. Photo by Richard Avedon.

The exhibition features a vast selection of intense black and white portraits of people captured by Avedon with his distinctive empathy. Avedon’s approach to photography was exclusively about his empathy with models and about the relationships he was able to create in his portraits. “Everything was possible thanks to his ability to get so close to people and the empathy and trust he had,” continued Ms. Senf. “If someone didn’t trust him they never would let put a camera right up in their face or reveal themselves in front of his camera. He had tremendous empathy and I think that created in the models a sense of trust. When you think of the picture of Dovima, where she was standing between two elephants, suggested that she has so much trust in Avedon that he would not put her in an unsafe situation and that the picture that they produced would be worth the risk that she took to made it.”

Dovima with elephants, evening dress by Dior, Cirque d’Hiver, Paris, August 1955. © The Richard Avedon Foundation. Photo by Richard Avedon.

The exhibition opens with two photographs by Robert Frank and June Leaf. “Being able to compare what they look like individually and how they look like when Avedon shows both of them, you can get this idea of how they look different and what Avedon is doing to cause that difference,” commented Ms. Senf. “Then as you go through the exhibition you see other examples and begin to see how people change when they are with different people. Another aspect of this idea of relationships is that Avedon knows people for a long period of time and then he photographed them more than once and you can see how his interaction, connection and relationship with them influence what the photographs look like. The best example is the Truman Capote picture where as a young man, at 31 he looks so fragile, but then at 50, he looks heavy because the world just bit them up. Avedon was able to do that by emphasizing the heaviness and the damage in the later pictures by zooming in and feeling the frame and all feels very crowded and compacted.”

Truman Capote, writer, New York, October 10, 1955; © The Richard Avedon Foundation. Photo by Richard Avedon.

Each image is a galaxy of details that take us back to the moment they were taken but at the same time continually speak to us about universal themes. “All the details and information that Avedon gives us through his photography are giving us a sense of moving through a landscape where you can notice all of this information,” continued Ms. Senf. “I find it so pleasurable, it’s really giving in to the sensualness of our psyche and vision and pleasure of notice. The pleasure of noticing and the contrast between something that is very sharp and detailed and something that is soft, and noticing all the differences in textures on clothing and hairs or eyebrows is a kind of proximity and closeness that usually strangers don’t have. It is a kind of closeness you would have with someone like your spouse or your children that can be really close and can see all those things. I think viewing the picture gives a sense of intimacy because you are so close to them and you can linger and spend time looking at them in a way you normally don’t look at someone you don’t know very well.”

The exhibition is sponsored by the City of Milan and produced by Palazzo Reale and Skira Editore in collaboration with the Center for Creative Photography and the Richard Avedon Foundation. 

“What is new in this exhibition it is that there is a thread through all the exhibition because everything is interconnected. Instead of being an exhibition with 106 pictures, it is 106 pictures explaining one idea, it is almost like reading a book and the photographs are all the characters that help to understand the idea of the book. I think that the notion of the exhibition is that the viewer is the main character because is the one that is looking at all these pictures and has the possibility to know the people in the photographs not necessarily by knowing who they are or what made them important, but because they are simply people.”

Jean Shrimpton, evening dress by Cardin, Paris, January, 1970. © The Richard Avedon Foundation. Photo by Richard Avedon.

A second section of the exhibition is dedicated to the strong relationship with the fashion house Versace, the main partner of the exhibition, and Avedon’s creative approach in more than fifteen years of advertising campaigns. In a video in the exhibition, Donatella Versace describes her personal relationship with the late Avedon. “Richard always told me to use my creative power on the set,” she says. “But I think the power I had was his power that he was able to transmit to me. I was totally free during the realization of the campaigns and it was so easy to listen to his directions and the results were incredible.”

“Avedon’s approach to fashion is playful and fun,” said Ms. Senf. “It is a joyous relationship because he was such a creative person that he was not simply recording clothes but he was interested in what role has fashion in the world. How fashion makes us feel sexy or powerful or excited. He was interested in all of the emotions and the passion he came with wearing particularly clothing and you see that in the photographs. It’s not recording what clothing looked like but how they make the models feel and how they come out with the performance in front of the camera. They were not just posing, they were performing, and it is a really exciting way to think about the power of fashion. After this global pandemic where people lived in their pyjamas, it’s important to remember that we have fashion for a reason, and fashion is about whatever we put on our body that makes us feel in a particular way.”

“Richard Avedon. Relationships” is on view at Palazzo Reale until January 28.

Jessica Capretti is a frequent contributor to Milano Art Guide since 2021. She graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Milan and has worked on several projects including “L’Arc de Triomphe Wrapped” by Christo and Jeanne-Claude, in Paris. She lives and works in Milan.