Richard Bolton on Richard Avedon

Notes on Richard Bolton – “In The American East – Richard Avedon Incorporated”

Much of what has been discussed in this part of the course concerns two polarised ways of approaching documentary photography. At one end there is the dispassionate, objective view (as shown by August Sander and later on by Daniel Meadows), and at the other is the authorial stance shown by photographers such as Sebastião Salgado. Neither approach can be thought of as right or wrong, but both – and all gradations in between – require an honesty on the part of the photographer regarding their intentions.

Richard Bolton in his essay takes Richard Avedon to task for exactly this dishonesty. Bolton describes how Avedon applied so much control to the way in which his exhibition was to be viewed that it generated, in Bolton’s eyes at least, a very different reading. As a general observation, Bolton is by extension warning against trying to control the narrative too much as the viewer will react against this if this control is too blatant. In the case of Avedon’s exhibition, Bolton objects to Avedon’s insistence that what is being displayed is something that Bolton does not read. Avedon asks if the images would be perceived differently if he revealed his subjects to be actors, to which Bolton responds “It would do neither. Avedon has treated his subjects as actors anyway; their appearance owes everything to his control”(Bolton,1989:266). In attempting to apply too much control to the way in which his work will be interpreted, Avedon has instead generated a very different reading.

Bolton, R. (1989) The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography (The MIT Press). (New Ed edition) (s.l.): MIT Press.

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