I am not Richard Avedon
November 25th, 2015 by Duy Mai
Kent State University Professor Gene Shelton was one of the subjects photographed by David LaBelle for the campus Story Bank project.

Kent State University Professor Gene Shelton was one of the subjects photographed by David LaBelle for the campus Story Bank project.

We are never too old to learn something new about our old selves.

Last year, a colleague asked if I would shoot portraits of people from diverse backgrounds. I enthusiastically agreed, provided I maintained control over shooting, editing and presentation of images.

My insistence on control stemmed from a successful, but frustrating, portrait project I completed a year earlier. I allowed the subjects to choose the images they wanted shared in a traveling gallery presentation. To my dismay, each selected the most flattering pictures over more powerful, revealing photographs.

This time, I determined to hold my ground—to be an artist, like the late fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon. I would choose the setting, use only one or two lights, no props, no gimmicks, just me and the subject—just like the master often did—preserving the personal, magical dynamic often born between photographer and subject.

Like Avedon, I started a dialog with each subject, gently pressing and prodding, trying to extract real, honest emotions. Several times during these 90-minute shoots I had to stop, realizing I might open a wound I was not able to close. Afterall, I am not a licensed psychologist.

During editing, I studied the expressions closely and was acutely reminded of my subjects’ vulnerability. Several had visually bared their soul, tearfully pouring out their heart to me and the camera with personal, raw, painful times from their lives.

An internal conflict began. Though it had been agreed I would have final say in the images published, choosing to display the strongest, most revealing images seemed inappropriate, as if I was ambushing those souls that had trusted me.

Though I fiercely wanted to be the controlling artist, it did not feel right. I could not publish raw portraits without the blessing of each subject. It had been a communal experience, a joint creation.

I hated this realization, and feared the “better,” more intimate images would never be seen—and I was right. When they saw themselves in painful, unguarded expressions, most of the subjects winced and asked that I not share those pictures.

While I share Avedon’s artistic—maybe even selfish blood in my creative veins—I learned I am not him. It is my nature to please others, even if it displeases me and compromises my artistic integrity and the financial welfare of my family.

Avedon was an artist; I am a documentary photographer. I strive to be a compassionate storyteller who does no harm and gives my subjects a voice above my artistic interpretation.

While I admire his work, I realized I lack the heart, conviction and courage to present people the way Avedon often did.

That admitted, I did press and prod, hoping to extract real, honest, even painful emotion.

But in the end, I allowed each person to choose the image the public would see. As expected, most were not the “best” or “revealing” photographs, but safe and friendly expressions.

In the spirit of true collaboration, allowing the portraiture subjects to choose was the right thing to do.

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daveDavid LaBelle is an internationally known photographer, teacher, author and lecturer. He has worked for newspapers and magazines across the United States and taught at three universities. He grew up on a frog farm in rural California, roaming the creeks and hills with his coon dogs. Many of the lessons he learned during those magical boyhood years have been applied to photography and teaching the essence of this art form. For more information, visit www.greatpicturehunt.com.