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Looking at Photographs: Certain assertion and ambivalent ambiguity
January 16, 2013
by Richard Kalvar
A few years ago, I read this very interesting piece by Philip Gefter in the New York Times, "In Portraits by Others, a Look That Caught Avedon’s Eye":

It spoke about Richard Avedon as collector of photography rather than as photographer.

The article was accompanied by a few photographs, in particular the ones shown above this post. The small part of the text that referred to them said: “A century of advances in technology allowed Avedon to do things Nadar could not, like capturing the finest detail with instantaneous exposures. Yet ‘Evelyn Avedon, 1975,’ a portrait of his wife, echoes the guarded tenderness of ‘Ernestine, 1854-55,’ Nadar’s portrait of his young wife that is in Avedon’s collection.”

I read this description, written with all-knowing self-assurance, and thought, “Wait a minute; that can’t be right.” Have a look at the two portraits. Would you call the expressions of these two women “guarded tenderness”? Well maybe, but it could just as easily be annoyance, anger, or even fury, no? They reminded me of the pictures that I used to take of my wife, when I was testing a new developer and needed a warm body to hold up scores of signs that said Tri-X 400 ASA Xtol 1:3 9.5 minutes, TriX 800 ASA D76 1:2 7,5 minutes, etc., etc. After half an hour, I would get looks similar to Mme Nadar’s and Ms Avedon’s. So who are you going to believe, Philip Gefter or your lying eyes? And what was true for one of the women was not necessarily true for the other.

How do critics come to make statements like this? Isn’t the very nature of photography ambiguous, where different interpretations of the frozen moment are possible, with no certainty about what was really going on? I don’t believe we should be told what to think and how to see, but rather encouraged to look for ourselves, and bathe in the ambiguity.

PS: I wish I had kept all those strips of negatives that had been developed in different developers for varying lengths of time. I could have put a few hundred of the pictures together and become a famous conceptual photographer.