Capturing political faces of yesterday

February 09, 1993|By Knight-Ridder News Service

WASHINGTON -- From postmaster to president, photographer Richard Avedon has enjoyed a brilliant career capturing the familiar and sometimes not so memorable faces of this country's recent political history.

On an assignment for Rolling Stone magazine in 1976, Mr. Avedon set out to photograph the candidates running for the nation's highest office in the first post-Watergate election.

He didn't stop with Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter, however. It soon included policy shapers from migrant farm fields to Capitol Hill.

Today, these images are the focus of "The Family 1976: Richard Avedon's Portraits for Rolling Stone," a display at the National Portrait Gallery that unites for the first time 69 of his portrait photographs from the bicentennial year.

"The simpler, the better" seems to be what Mr. Avedon likes best. Although they hailed from different corners of the country, his subjects are all set against the same white backdrop, making a very plain and stark setting.

The works draw their strength from subtle body language, expressions, frame positioning and strong contrast.

Former Texas congresswoman Barbara Jordan stands dead center in the frame, with hands on hips and fixed eyes peering intently toward the lens. Democratic Sen. Edmund Muskie from Maine stands slightly to the viewer's right with his attention equally focused, seemingly as if he were listening to someone speaking to him off camera.

The lighter side is seen as well, as another former congresswoman, the buoyant Bella Abzug from New York City, sports a wide smile. Similarly, New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan is captured in a bright-eyed, somewhat jovial moment.

A folded newspaper in the arms of former New York Times managing editor Abraham M. Rosenthal and a briefcase in the hand of one-time Commerce Secretary Elliot Richardson are among the few props that appear in any of the works.

Perhaps apparent then only to the most politically astute, a trio of individuals in separate works would go on to occupy the Oval Office: Democratic presidential candidate Jimmy Carter, former California Gov. Ronald Reagan and a director of the Central Intelligence Agency named George Bush.

Beyond reacquainting viewers with former, and perhaps forgotten, cabinet secretaries, labor leaders and congressional members, the collection also highlights just how much the corridors of power have turned over since 1976.

Recent gains by women and minorities in the House of Representatives and the Senate become ever more apparent when realizing that only a small number of the Avedon works are of women or non-Caucasians.

The critically acclaimed 69-year-old photographer continues to work at his craft. He recently was selected by New Yorker magazine to be its first-ever staff photographer.

THE FAMILY 1976

What: Richard Avedon photos

When: 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. daily through June 6.

Where: National Portrait Gallery, Eighth and F streets N.W., Washington.

Admission: Free.

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