Welcome to the second entry of The Face Series, which draws from Dr Paul Ekman's on the face and it's expressions to give a narrative to portraits by seminal photographers; today we look at Richard Avedon.
Richard Avedon's work is very inspirational for me not only because of the technical excellence or breadth of work, but because his study of human nature was very perceptive and penetrating. One such story about Avedon's portrait session with Sharon Stone highlights for me Avedon's insight:
"Well, I usually shoot heroin and drink champagne," Stone said, and she headed off to the dressing room to figure out her hair.
I asked Avedon to decode Stone's performance so far. "Everything she said was in the hope of being quoted," he said. "The name-dropping was very smart. My portrait of John Ford. Chess with Art Buchwald. They're professional charm-workers . . . She has no interest in anyone else . . . She's interested in the effect she has on you. When she thinks she sees her reflection in your eye, and I respond, she's satisfied and changes the subject."
From John Lars' essay 'Hide-and-Seek on p.46-47 of Richard Avedon's 'Performance'.
So how did Avedon capture a character portrait of a successful actress, a portrait that shows not beauty and glamour, but instead a woman who has "no interest in anyone else" but only the effect they have on you, the viewer?
The clearest indicator here that Avedon has captured something of Stone's character (as Avedon perceived it) is in the expression present on the face. The one-sided raising of the corner of Stone's mouth has been documented by Ekman's research to be a universal signal of contempt. Matching this expression with the extreme posture of Sharon Stone in this portrait creates a picture with a lot of impact, and has a clear visual message.
Facial expressions of genuine emotional usually last for up to 4 seconds, and if the emotion is attempted to be concealed by the subject they may last as little as 1/15 of a second. What impresses me about Avedon's work is his capacity to see so clearly, and create images that represent his vision so fully.
Becoming more literate about the nuances of facial expression not only helps us as artists, but also helps us serve our clients by presenting their best qualities.
If you are interested in further resources on Richard Avedon or Paul Ekman please see: