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Avedon | The Kennedys

17 May, 2010

On April 17th I opened The Kennedys | Portrait of a Family, Photographs by Richard Avedon in the main special exhibitions galleries at the Peabody Essex Museum. We’ve been getting terrific press such as this review from the Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize winning critic, Mark Feeney, and attendance has been excellent. Between Avedon and the concurrent exhibition Maya and the Mythic Sea, visitation at the museum is up 50% on the previous year.

The Avedon exhibition features final prints and enlarged contact sheets from a single session Avedon had with the Kennedy family on January 3, 1961 — after JFK’s election but before his inauguration. The pictures are all vintage and were commissioned by Harper’s Bazaar magazine — a copy of the issue the images appeared in is included in the display. To give a flavor of the times we copied the typewriter-style font that Harper’s used in 1961 in all the exhibition graphics. And to give the show a period, Modernist look we used white walls with gray highlights, and hung the pictures with very regular spacing. I’ve never installed a show like this before but I think it works well.

What’s great about the exhibition, and the reason I wanted to do it in the first place, is that it shows how important editing is in the photographic process. The Kennedys were interesting in their own right and any photographs made in this period would be worth seeing. But considering the rarity of the images (they were the only formal pictures made between the election and inauguration), the high-profile publication that commissioned them, and how famous Avedon was at the time, they have a real weight of history about them. Shooting with a 2-1/4 x 2-1/4″ Rolleiflex, Avedon got 11-12 shots per roll of film. The exhibition shows them all, from the ones that were published to the ones that landed on the cutting room floor. The pictures that weren’t used were often pretty wonderful in their own right, but Avedon chose the pictures that most closely matched the way he thought the new first family should be seen. Sometimes the differences between frames are very subtle, like a slightly different position of the hands or tilt of the head. But Avedon knew exactly which ones he wanted. Visitors can also see cropping, retouching, and burning and dodging that went into making the final prints.

The exhibition is on loan to us from the National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution. It will be on display at PEM from April 17 to July 18, 2010.


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