The Face Series - Richard Avedon's Beekeeper

Ricahrd Avedon's 'In the American West' was a huge project, shot over 6 years with 752 subjects in multiple locations; farms, Rattlesnake Roundups, prisons, psychiatric wards, and across multiple States, Richard Avedon was looking. He was looking for qualities of humanity in the faces of strangers, and one night had a clear vision for a photograph of a man surrounded by bees.

After receiving 40 unremarkable Polaroids of potential models Richard Avedon received the picture of Ronald Fischer, on whom he later remarked "I don't know how to put it, but he had a quality so exceptional, so like a dream."

Avedon shot for three sessions over two days 121 sheets of large format film. The shoot involved a beekeeper bringing 120,000 bees, and applying the pheromone of the queen bee to Ronald Fischer's chest, which would both attract the bees and prevent them stinging the subject. Finally two carefully studied portraits emerged, both with a very different message, but both about ways to meet one's life and hardships.

About these two pictures Avedon said the following:

In this one (left), he feels the sting of the bees. He feels pain. He accepts suffering - like a Christian martyr. But in the other (right), he removes himself in a Buddhist way. He’s oblivious to the stinging. That’s the power of the picture for me. It speaks more directly to my understanding of how to endure, of how to prevail.
— p. 47 of 'Avedon at Work in the American West' by Laura Wilson

So,  what is different between the two portraits? What was Richard Avedon seeing?

We can tell immediately that in many ways they are very similar images. The posture of Ronald Fischer is composed, upright, and calm, which leaves us with the observing the face. If we cover the eyes and forehead we see that from the top of the cheekbones down the expression is nearly identical in each image. There is, however, a slight difference in that the chin in the image on the left is slightly pulling upwards and the corners of the lips are slightly stretching across the face. The chin raise is slightly effecting the bottom lip, and the lip corners are slightly changing the cheeks, which are slightly fuller in the picture on the left than on the right. As these are so slight we really have to look at the eyebrows to make sense of this expression, and Avedon's interpretation of them both.

The biggest difference between the two portraits is the eyebrows and their resultant effect on the forehead. In the picture on the left the eyebrows are pulling up and together, creating deeper vertical and horizontal creases in the forehead. This is a clear indication, as found by Dr. Paul Ekman's research, of sadness, alongside the clear act of concentration being made by Fischer. This action in the eyebrows is missing in the portrait on the right, and so communicates Fischer's ease with the situation, again, alongside his concentrated effort.

To repeat from the previous blogs in this series, an emotional display like this would have likely lasted for 4 seconds or less (possibly as little as 1/15 of a second if Fischer was trying to repress his feelings in order to be a 'good subject').

Avedon was deftly working with a large format camera that had to be loaded with large individual sheets of film in the hot Californian sun, while a man had 1,000 bees swarming over him. Every time he pressed the release cable had to count, and it was his great perception and instinct for the surface of the face that enabled him, among other qualities, to create so many portraits full of meaning and power.  

If you are interested in further resources please see:

'Avedon at Work in the American West' by Laura Wilson