I was in Washington, D.C. last weekend and in a rarity had the afternoon to myself. No obligations, no kids in tow. I decided to go downtown, walk around the White House, take in the atmosphere, and also take in the Avedon show, Portraits of Power, at the Cocoran.
Avedon was on my mind because of Kander. Nadav Kander had just done an extended photo essay in the New York Times magazine, Obama’s People. The essay was a point of discussion in our house. Were the photos good? Did the essay work? Was it worth all the effort? I wasn’t sure myself. I liked some of the images but overall it didn’t come together for me. I didn’t glean anything from the images as a group. Now, that’s not to say that Nadav Kander isn’t an amazing photographer, he is. And that’s not to say that the New York Times Magazine wasn’t pushing the envelope a bit here, it was. But it was as if a risk had been taken, which was great, but it didn’t completely pan out. So, the magazine had to run with it because they had already committed to it.
The Kander photo essay is direct descendant from some of Avedon’s work. Seeing the two close together helped me get at what was bothering me about the Kander spread. The Avedon portraits are gorgeous – the tonality, the detail, the framing. Whether you like them or not conceptually there is an aesthetic element to draw you in. The Avedon portraits, too, are respectful of the subject. Even if Avedon has caught an odd moment or presents someone in a less than flattering way there’s a connection that occurs. The Kander work, in contrast, has many images which seem to have been chosen because they are odd for the sake of being odd – the Samantha Power portrait is one example. There’s not a lot to draw you in aesthetically and there’s nothing gained emotionally. I know he may be after more of an anti-aesthetic point of view but it’s hard to see the payoff when the subjects are real people (as opposed to something staged like a fashion spread.)
The kicker for me in all this was this week’s New Yorker. It has a small Platon photo essay, First Dance, of guests and performers who attended the inaugural balls. It’s fun and engaging. In subjects from young to old, everyday to famous, it captures the exuberance of this moment in time.