Richard Avedon, slavery and dialectics

William Casby, born a slave. Richard Avedon 1963

Deliberate or otherwise, Richard Avedon’s seminal portrait of William Casby elucidates a darkness beyond the objective immediacy of Casby’s race. The portrait compels an observer to peer beyond the craggy façade and extrapolate truth from behind the mask. Dialectically, the immediate physical characteristics of the photo are replete with elements suggesting Avedon was not attempting to stylize, idealize or misrepresent Casby. These physical attributes are immediately recognizable regardless of belief or perspective. The compositional and lighting elements provide clues as to the story behind the subject. Avedon chose to photograph Casby horizontal to the plane of the camera. This perspective signifies a departure from traditional “beauty” oriented photography where the subject is typically angled towards the camera in an attempt to minimize any “unattractive” physical qualities. Casby’s facial features are all in sharp focus, again a departure from beauty oriented photography where selective focus is often used to “soften” rough features. Rather than framing his composition in thirds (the classical golden ratio), Avedon chose to compose Casby in the centre of the frame, yet another departure from the “beauty” perspective. Finally, Avedon uses a light source above Casby without a companion fill light beneath. This has the effect of accentuating rather than minimizing Casby’s facial textures. The physical elements of the image (composition, lighting etc.) lead an observer to believe that Avedon’s photo is not a portrait at all, at least not from the euro-centric perspective of portraiture which is typically concerned with projecting beauty, nobility or status. The photo’s physical attributes contradict all those projections, rather deliberately.

Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Richard Avedon 1963

The title of the photo, “William Casby, born in slavery”, is immediately polarizing and opens the door to a dialectic minefield. Is Avedon communicating a transition from slavery to freedom, or a continued state of slavery? Given that the photo was taken in the midst of the American civil rights movement, would transition be interpreted as derogatory to an opponent of the movement, or perhaps illusory to a proponent? Would a widely published photo of an aged black man be considered a necessary or offensive commentary on slavery in America? Depending on your perspective, the physical observation of Casby’s “blackness” would serve to qualify his “equal-ness” or lack thereof. To an opponent of the civil rights movement, this may represent a degradation of American values whereas a proponent may interpret it as an idealistic evolution of those values. Looking for a moment at Avedon’s own dialectic response to his Casby photo, “The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution” presents us with a dichotomous perspective on American culture of this period. In Daughters, Avedon again departs from a traditional, beauty oriented portrayal of “nobility”. In doing so he presents a stark perspective of the American ruling class of his period. Associating his titling of both Daughters and Casby to the photos themselves, Avedon implies both transition and deterioration. Allegorical to American culture in the mid-twentieth century, the subjects in both Daughters and Casby feel worn, aged and weathered. Avedon’s punctuation of the Casby photo with the term “born in slavery” compels us to consider slavery as a natural or prescriptive state. Freedom is a natural state that is both physical and psychological (humans are not naturally born into slavery). Slavery is a prescription that is externally imposed yet, as is evidenced in American history, its solution (the “natural” state of freedom) has also had to be prescribed externally (or positivistically). Understanding the distinction between natural and prescribed states allows us to deduce that in titling his photo, Avedon was in fact commenting on the discourse of slavery as a social prescription.