Exhibition of the week
Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power
Corcoran Gallery, Washington, D.C. Through Jan. 25, 2009

Republicans and Democrats face each other down every day in the U.S. Capitol, said Edward Gunts in the Baltimore Sun. This election year, they’re also doing so across the Mall, at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s exhibition of political portraits by photographer Richard Avedon. Barack Obama stares across the room at Karl Rove. Nearby hang portraits of Ronald Reagan, John F. Kennedy, and a young Donald Rumsfeld. “From the 1940s until his death in 2004, Avedon traveled the world to photograph people who either exercised great power or were involved in power struggles of one kind or another.” His portraits—which originally appeared in such magazines as Vogue, Rolling Stone, and The New Yorker—are a “titillating portfolio” of the most important politicians of the past half-century.

Avedon considered his subject not politics per se, but power in general, said Brett Zongker in the Associated Press. He didn’t always have a flattering view of it. “His trademark white background and sometimes harsh lighting” leads some portraits, such as one of Dwight D. Eisenhower, to seem almost “cruel.” In addition to powerful individuals, Avedon liked to photograph groups representative of particular conflicts: “the Joint Chiefs of Staff and gays in the military, civil-rights activists and members of the American Nazi party.” In one area of the exhibition, members of the Chicago Seven, who protested the Vietnam War, face off against the group of generals who planned it.

Comparing these political enemies, “you’re struck not by the two groups’ fundamental difference but by their underlying sameness,” said Blake Gopnik in The Washington Post. Peeling away layers of self-presentation, Avedon lets us judge these figures as human beings. “Of course, Avedon needs all the tricks in his tool kit” to get past politicians’ pretensions and preening. Folks like Henry Kissinger, the Duke of Windsor, and George H.W. Bush aren’t exactly known for emoting, and the intimacy Avedon creates is hard-earned. Look closely at the Obama portrait, taken in 2004: You’ll notice that Avedon has used a lens to create the impression that Obama’s face is shifted forward from his body, subtly creating a sense of closeness. “Without resorting to forced, rhetorical signs of intimacy—a deliberate smile, a welcoming gesture—Avedon can make a remote politician into someone you can get close to.”