Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Avedon AND Kennedy at the PEM

It's like a perfect storm of greatness. Kennedy family portraits by photographer Richard Avedon.I'm really torn here. I don't know whether I want to gush over the the President and Mrs. Kennedy, Caroline, and baby John, or Richard Avedon. I do know that Salem is a very lucky place to have the Peabody Essex Museum and their Curator of Photography Phillip Prodger, who brought Avedon and Kennedy to Salem for a few months.

So I'll gush over the PEM, an institution that makes connections between Salem and the art and culture of the world through its special and permanent exhibits. Last weekend the PEM was alive with Sensational India ("How was Sensational India," I asked. There was only one response, of course - "Sensational!") And now we journey to twentieth century American photography and the political realm of 1961. Adjacent to Avedon? The Maya and the Mythic Sea. Downstairs? American Decorative Arts. Out the window? The only example of 18th-century Chinese architecture in America. IN SALEM. Gush.

Back to Avedon. This exhibit was created by the National Museum of American History and organized for travel by the Smithsonian Institution traveling Exhibition Services (SITES). The Smithsonian in Salem at the PEM. In the form of Avedon. And the Kennedys. Be still my heart.

Taken for Harpers Bazaar and Look, These are the only formal pictures taken of Kennedy between his election and inauguration. Avedon was an amazing photographer, and you get a true sense of his craft through the images. At the exhibit preview last night, Phillip Prodger pointed out that at the time, Avedon was cutting edge. Most portrait photographers would shoot their subject in a space that provided context - a library or an office, for example. Avedon photographed his subjects on a white or gray background.

In addition to the portraits, there are a number of contact sheets included in the exhibit, and these show series of twelve images made to get one shot. Through the contact sheets, you will not only discover the charisma and elegance of the Kennedys, Avedon also shares family connections and the mood of the photo shoot.

Prodger pointed out that Avedon was expert at burning and dodging - or adjusting the exposure of the image - making Jackie appear to have a bit of a halo in one of the images. She glows in one portrait. I was slightly disappointed to learn it was photographic manipulation that gave her that ethereal appearance. Disappointment aside, Avedon's manipulation and talent created a stunning portrait.

I'm done gushing now. Go see the exhibit. Let me know what you think.

The Kennedys | Portrait of a Family: Photographs by Richard Avedon is a fantastic exhibition. It opens on Saturday, April 17 and runs through July 18, 2010. Do see it.

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