Friday, November 19, 2010

A Picture is worth a Thousand Words

In my last blog Stealing the Soul, I mentioned that one criterion for being a great photo is how successful does it communicate with the viewers visually (without text or sound).  During my recent visit to the famed Museum of Fine Arts at Boston, there happened to be special exhibits of the works of two great photographers: Nicholas Nixon: Family Album and Avedon Fashion 1944-2000

Richard Avedon (1923-2004) revolutionized the fashion photography over a half of century ago by successfully making models an emotional part of the photo with actions.  All in black and white, many of the photos in the exhibit are dramatic, exaggerated, and absolutely astounding and creative in terms of setting, perspective, expression, and lighting.  Here are two such an eye-catching photos.

One may wonder if the characters in those portraits had made the photographer’s job easier since they are mostly famous stars, celebrities or professional models.   In fact, in Avedon’s own words on his portraits of Audrey Hepburn: “I am, and forever will be, devastated by the gift of Audrey Hepburn before my camera. I cannot lift her to greater heights. She is already there. I can only record. I cannot interpret her. There is no going further than who she is. She has achieved in herself her ultimate portrait.”  Of course this is not true despite however impressed he was by Audrey Hepburn.  Take a look of the following famous portrait of Audrey Hepburn for her performance in the 1957 movie Funny Face.  It is technically way overexposed such that one can’t see anything else of the face but her eyebrows, eyes, nose and mouth.  It is an excellent demonstration of the photographer’s creative skill and aesthetics in his expression that captured the essence with least but critical details of the character.

Another incredible work of Richard Avedon’s (not shown in the exhibit either) is one of his portraits of Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev on the right (sourced from  Rudolf Nureyev needs no introduction – he is one of the greatest ballet dancers ever, period.   What is a better way to pay tribute to him than by showing his powerful foot in action?  Look at that impossible straight line from leg to toe; look at that callus of his heel; look at those wrinkles of the sole from the tension of the twist!  Seeing a photo likes this make one understand the importance of the composition by the photographer.  Showing an inch more of his leg would destroy the balance and the artistic beauty as other parts of his body are not essential – they are merely distractions at worst, and supports for his feet, at best.  What further distinguishes this photo from others is the relationship of the foot with the blurred image of a spectator (a photographer?) perfect in size and placement: not too large or too small and slightly below the heel.  The shadowy image, clearly separated from the foot, fills aptly the void between the lone foot with the rest of the world.   Who says a portrait needs a face?

Walking into another gallery of the Museum of Fine Arts at Boston, one gets a totally a different feel from the work of Nicholas Nixon (1947-).   As the title suggests, the exhibit shows photos of the most intimate individuals and relations of his family including those from his long running project Brown Sisters (of his wife) since 1975. 

Nicholas Nixon’s insistence of using large (8x10 or 11x14) view cameras affords him of portraits with extraordinary level of clarity and details, among others.  On exhibits are his portraits that celebrate birth and progression of life and relationships.  Unlike Avedon’s, there are no stars and no fashion statements in his photos but they do touch the deepest and innate part of human emotions.  One of my favorites is his 1986 work of his wife Bebe with his son Clementine who was a baby then.    The bond between the baby and his mother cannot be mistaken with the strong protecting hands holding and surrounding the chest of the baby’s soft skin and fat.  The choice of the exclusion of baby’s face above the content lip is ingenious.  The soft light and shadow is just enough to accentuate the lip, the chin, and of course don’t forget the drooling!  

Nicholas Nixon confronted the less pleasant parts of life and emotions with camera as well.  In addition to many of the photos he took when his father was frail and aged, nursing home residents and Aids patients were among his important subject projects.  Here is a photo of an old woman in what appears to be a room of a nursing home with the hint of the cold and harsh table and a chair in the background.  With most of the woman remains invisible, the focus is obviously her left hand on the table.  The hand appears to be unusually long and bony.  The skin is so wrinkled and loose as if someone had just sucked out the fat and muscle underneath.  I have seen depressing photos of people suffering from illness, starvation, or war.  I have heard of and seen senior people in nursing homes. But nothing prepared me for such a dark and unsettling image.  I suppose it is fair Nicholas Nixon grounds us with the reality and progression of life, be it the joys and warmth of growth and relationships or its lonesome inescapable outcome.

Talk to you soon!

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