I recently mentioned that I've become somewhat of a collector of photography monographs and other interesting or inspiring printed collections of photography. In this rapidly changing world, photographs are most likely to be viewed on a screen these days. Perhaps more often than not, it will be the small screen of a mobile device. This is unfortunate in my opinion and I much prefer to view images, particularly those that inspire me, in print. While nothing matches holding a good silver halide print in my hands, a quality printed book of well reproduced images runs a close second.
Last year I was rummaging through the shelves of a used book store and stumbled upon a large book by one of my favorite photographers, Richard Avedon. I couldn't put this copy of "Woman in the Mirror" down and so it came home with me. This became the first monograph in what has since grown into a modest collection of works that that inspire me. Avedon, who left us in 2004, was a fashion photographer who is perhaps most remembered for his portraits, particularly women, on plain white or gray backgrounds. I find his portraits against the plain backgrounds inspiring for the simplistic and unassuming style that manages to convey the profound character of his subjects without any environment for reference. His portraits tend to bring out a sense of honesty and realism, capturing the essence of his subjects. Whether drifter or socialite, model or average citizen, Avedon produced soulful character studies on a blank canvas.
"Woman in the Mirror" is a mostly chronological portfolio of Avedon's work with women subjects. His earlier work in the book is environmental in nature - apparent staged photos for the most part, while retaining a certain spontaneity with his subjects. Over the years his work largely evolved into shooting with plain backgrounds, although examples of elaborate conceptual environmental portraits remained in his fashion work. It is Avedon's work with subjects in a starkness of space that I find the most compelling and inspiring. I like that many of his portraits don't appear posed. Some appear to be passing, unguarded moments with his subjects. When it comes to fashion, there is often a sense of interaction between the model and her clothing , complementary shapes or implied movement, as if the wardrobe has become an extension of the woman it adorns.
This book will be appreciated by any fan of Avedon. If you work in portraiture and have ever grumbled about not having a compelling place to photograph your subjects, this is a good book to inspire. Yes, there are a number of images of subjects shot in intriguing environments. However, spend some time studying the many images in this book of subjects in a void space. You may be as inspired as I am with Avedon's deceptively simple yet powerful portraits. My own portfolio has come to include a few portraits that I will readily admit are a nod to Mr. Avedon. The mechanics of a classic Avedon portrait are certainly obtainable with a roll of seamless paper and a modest complement of lighting. However, the interaction with a subject to obtain a portrait that communicates the essence of a person is a whole other skill that Avedon developed over a lifetime.