“(re)Framing Conversations: Photographs by Richard Avedon, 1946–1965” opens December 8 at the National Museum of American History

Avedon. Only one name was always needed. On December 8, “(re)Framing Conversations: Photographs by Richard Avedon, 1946–1965” will debut at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Twenty images by Richard Avedon spanning two decades, from the Smithsonian’s extensive photographic history collection, will be on display in the exhibit through fall 2023.

Avedon (1923-2004) is one of the most influential photographers of the 20th century. He first made his mark in the pages of Harper’s Bazaar. Journals such as Look, life, the New Yorker and Squire followed, with covers, advertisements and editorial articles.

Fame gave him a platform and photography gave him a medium. Initially associated with high fashion and high society, Avedon moved seamlessly in and out of the social echelons of Manhattan, from downtown to downtown, but was emotionally and professionally invested in cultural awareness, social and political issues, impact and authenticity.

“(re)Framing Conversations” will invite visitors to travel throughout the exhibition in the direction of their choice. Themes of music, weddings, change, fear, women’s words and your moral compass will allow the audience to relate their personal experience to the historical content presented throughout.

“As a history museum holding a vast and exceptional collection of photography, we are pleased to reveal how the fine arts provide a key lens for understanding and exploring the nation’s complicated history,” said Anthea M. Hartig, Museum Director, Elizabeth MacMillan. “The visual impact and experience of Avedon’s photographs captures some of the cultural and social tensions of the time through the mass media platform of the magazines he used to great effect as one of the creators of culture of the country.”

Avedon’s distinctive portraits with their plain white backgrounds include an offering of not only those who are instantly recognizable, but also those who are notable in other ways – good and otherwise. His subjects trusted his energy and truth and allowed him to look beyond their appearances to discover a more authentic version of themselves. All of his subjects influenced – and were influenced by – their time and culture.

Activist and author James Baldwin and Avedon both attended DeWitt Clinton High School in the Bronx where they edited the school’s literary magazine. By the mid-1960s Baldwin had become one of America’s most important writers, and in 1964 Avedon approached Baldwin to contribute an essay to Avedon’s 1964 book, nothing personal. Avedon fans will recognize some of the images from the book on the walls of the “(re)Framing Conversations” exhibit. Bridging the gap between 1960s fashion and political activism, Baldwin’s essay, “Letter from a Prisoner” accompanied by Avedon’s portrait of him, appeared in a 1963 issue of Harper’s Bazaar.

“After World War II and before the great popularity of television, magazines were important modes of visual transmission,” said Shannon Perich, curator of the Photographic History Collection. “Avedon’s photographs and his own presence in print culture propelled, changed and shaped the way readers understood ideas about portraiture, fame, power and emotions. He channeled his own ideas and concerns about American culture through his photographs, giving us a way to explore historical questions that continue to resonate with us today, from simple ones like “What music moves you?” to the more difficult, ‘How long does change take?’

About (some) of the topics

  • Nation of Islam and civil rights leader Malcolm X was often followed and scrutinized in magazines and newspapers. Evangelical preacher Billy Graham has advised many American presidents starting with Dwight D. Eisenhower.
  • William Casby, born into slavery, had been legally free for decades when Avedon took his portrait in 1963. Yet what did freedom mean to politicians like Alabama Governor George Wallace, who strove to keep segregationist and racist laws and policies in place?
  • Poet and satirist Dorothy Parker, known for her biting humor, was blacklisted after her name appeared in the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HCUA) inspirational pamphlet Red channels.
  • Avedon captured the day silent film star Charlie Chaplin, demonized by the US government and media, left the United States. Director John Huston moved to Ireland to protest and avoid being blacklisted. Humphrey Bogart was among the first in Hollywood to be interviewed by the HCUA and, along with Huston, helped found the Committee for the First Amendment to organize and protect the motion picture industry from the fallout of McCarthyism.
  • After World War II, music became a platform for expressing personal identity and political values. Bob Dylan, Louis Armstrong and Judy Garland whose photos are among those on display.
  • Although Avedon included designer wedding dresses among the fashion broadcasts and advertisements he produced, in 1961 he created a very different set of images for Harper’s Bazaarfocusing on civil weddings at New York City Hall.

Six sections/Six collages

“(re)Framing Conversations” comprises six collages, each addressing the six themes of the exhibition, which are inspired by the work of Avedon. Graphics were favored with images emphasizing the power and agency of unrepresented communities. One of the three table tops features clips from an Avedon photoshoot with actress Katharine Hepburn. A rotating selection of magazines (subject to availability) from 1946 to 1965 will be available for visitors to read and gain insight into the impact of visual culture and print media on post-war America.

Avedon and the Smithsonian – A Brief History

In November 1962, the Smithsonian hosted Avedon’s first solo exhibition as part of a series of exhibitions featuring the work of members of the Famous Photographers School. Avedon later donated this entire exhibit to the Smithsonian. Two additional donations of his work followed in the 1960s from which the photographs in this exhibition are drawn. In total, there are nearly 1,000 photographs, negatives, advertisements, and printed prints of Avedon in the National Museum of American History.

“(re)Framing Conversations: Photographs by Richard Avedon, 1946–1965” will be the first exhibition in conjunction with the December 9 debut of the permanent exhibition, “Entertainment Nation/Nación del espectáculo” in the new Marcia and Frank Carlucci Hall of Culture and the Arts, located in the Culture Wing on the third floor of the museum. “(re)Framing Conversations” is made possible by the support of Judy and Leonard Lauder, with additional funding from Marcia and Frank Carlucci and the William Talbott Hillman Foundation.

Accessibility information

Visitors can use their phone to access visual descriptions with QR codes located throughout the exhibition.

About the Museum

Through unparalleled collections, rigorous research, and dynamic public outreach, the National Museum of American History seeks to empower people to create a more just and compassionate future by examining, preserving, and sharing the complexity of our past. The museum, located on Constitution Avenue NW between 12th and 14th Streets, is open Friday through Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Admission is free. The doors of the museum are always open online and the Virtual Museum continues to expand its offerings, including online exhibits, materials and PK-12 educational programs. The public can follow the museum on social networks at Twitter, instagram and Facebook. For more information, visit https://americanhistory.si.edu. For information about the Smithsonian, the public can call (202) 633-1000.

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