My grandfather and Richard Avedon

Richard Avedon and my grandfather had very little in common.

Except in the 1960s they each snapped photos that still hold my imagination (below). 

Snapped, in the case of Avedon, might not be the best term. But Grandpa’s is a snapshot.

(Avedon (1923-2004) was a famed photographer and my grandpa (1901-1996) was a nondenominational minister.)

Both photos are of midcentury women — in their 60s to 80s —at ritual gatherings; one The Generals of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR) at the Mayflower Hotel in D.C. in 1963 and the other is the Ladies Circle in a church basement in Ohio.

My grandma was a loyal attendee of ladies’ teas and socials, she in a red hat at the center of Grandpa’s photo. Since Grandma didn’t drive, Grandpa showed up at the end of the event to fetch her, with camera in hand, after the cups and saucers (no mugs in those days) were put away. Grandpa often managed to charm these delegations to assemble for a photo.

Avedon also charmed his subjects as he helped make photography art. When the Photographic Society of London was established in 1853, one member described photography as “too literal to compete with works of art” because it was unable to “elevate the imagination” (Guardian, 16 Oct 2012). But it was Avedon and other 20thcentury photographers who did elevate the imagination with images as powerful as paintings. 

Avedon’s Generals photo intended satire while my grandpa’s image turned out to be as naïve as a Grandma Moses painting of the same era. Avedon’s image captures the upper class, Grandpa’s the middle. Grandpa’s women drove their dead husbands’ Buicks and Avedon’s were driven. These women were buried in the dresses we see, powdered, with cat glasses and comb-outs.

Unlike the Generals’, the shoulders of the church basement women never saw the light of day but they were no less patriotic than their DAR sisters. There is a stoic fervor in all these women, overt in the sashes of the Generals but just as well girdled in the church basement ladies. 

This fervor is for a vanishing ideal in those early 1960s, even as liberation and rock and roll and Viet Nam would change everything outside the church basement.   

But here’s my perceived truth about these photos: as much as I see a simple, comfortable, gentle, cool and sepia cookies-and-milk time that these women represent, a time in which I was a child, they are nonetheless aliens. There is no place for us among them. We have traveled to another universe and they are on a planet that in truth never existed.

It’s not just nostalgia that makes these photos powerful. It’s the gap in sensibility, awareness of what was going on when the shutter exposed the film and honesty about what that moment meant to individuals in the photos. In both these photos the subjects appear as though they had no idea that their ships had just hit an iceberg.  

It leaves an indelible feeling. Is that the art?

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