Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light–Helen Whitney’s Docu

Helen Whitney’s documentary, Richard Avedon: Darkness and Light lacks the glitzy style and facile entertainment of Unzipped, but it’s a solid film about an artist who revolutionized the very concept of fashion photography.

Prominent celeb status and strong interest in Avedon, arguably the most influential fashion photographer of the century, may facilitate limited theatrical release, though airings on PBS, Cable, and other venues are more likely.

Lacking chronological approach or other discernible structure, Richard Avedon still manages to provide a fascinating portrait of an artist who for the last half a century has left an indelible imprint on every facet of fashion and advertising photography, not the least of which is elevating these fields to the respectable realm of art. As several of the witnesses point out, Avedon changed forever the relationship between the photographer and his subject from a collaborative mode to one in which the artist is the dominant force and in total control.

To be a photographer,” Avedon says in summing up his philosophy, “you have to nurture the things that most people discard.” Indeed, refusing to accept the notion that photography is just a passive refection or recreation of the real world, he claims to have invested each of his works with fragments of his own face–and soul. Intrigued by the “complexity and power of the human face,” Avedon began his career photographing showbiz personalities, like Judy Garland and Buster Keaton, but later moved on to recording ordinary people and political events, such as the famous Berlin Wall at a crucial historical moment, in l989.

Various celebs comment on Avedon, most notably filmmaker Mike Nichols, who explains how Avedon’s best work combines an insider and an outsider perspective so that each photo projects both the artist’s and his subject’s P.O.V. Docu’s most amusing episode is a detailed reconstruction of the context and subtext of Avedon’s photo of the very young–and very naked–Nastasia Kinski with a menacing snake crawling all over her body.

Among the film’s highlights is Avedon’s recollection of Marilyn Monroe “freely dancing” in his studio for hours so that he could capture a never-before seen aspect of her persona. Another vivid segment describes how in l952 silent clown Charlie Chaplin called Avedon out of the blue and visited his place just days before leaving the U.S.–for fear of Senator McCarthy’s political witch-hunting.

End result depends largely on whom the filmmaker includes and excludes. For this film to be truly illuminating, it needs to be more judgmental and more critical of Avedon. Though the artist’s son disparages his father’s photos of his dying grandfather as “invasion into privacy,” most of the testimonies are laudatory and devoid of dispassionate assessment. Technical quality of historical footage and photography is for the most part adequate.

With: Richard Avedon, John Avedon, Benedeta Barzini, Andre Gregory, Lauren Hutton, John Lahr, Mike Nichols, and others.