PHOTOGRAPHY: Bleak Chic

A Richard Avedon retrospective poses the question: genius or just slick?

No matter what else goes on in Richard Avedon's portraits, it is the white backgrounds we remember first. Especially in the 1960s and '70s, when his up- against-the-wall pictures of celebrities and politicians started to appear in quantity, that bare radiance certified them as both aesthetically resolute and bang up-to-the-minute -- like hard-edged Minimalist painting -- and open to all kinds of understandings. Was that the chic white space of fashion magazines we were seeing? The Modernist's realm of purified spirit? The Existentialist's blank slate? Whatever it was, it seemed the mark of some supremely brave and urbane disposition located somewhere...

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