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Avedon's Power Portraits of Reagan, Rove, Obama and Others Share Spotlight at Corcoran Gallery
source: AP/Corcoran

Henry Kissinger, Secretary of State, Washington, D.C., June 2, 1976. Photograph Richard Avedon. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution; this acquisition was made possible by generous contributions from Jeane W. Austin and the James Smithson Society. 2008 The Richard Avedon Foundation.

WASHINGTON--Barack Obama has a wall of his own, staring directly at the man known as President Bush's brain, Karl Rove, who looks back with a smirk.

In the new exhibit "Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power" opening Saturday at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, just steps from the White House, Rove and Obama draw a striking contrast. Rove is portrayed in black and white, while Obama's portrait is larger and in color.

The pictures from just before Avedon's death in 2004 are among 200 portraits dating back to 1950 by the acclaimed portraitist and fashion photographer. It's the first time Avedon's political portraits have ever been assembled for exhibition, something the Corcoran has long planned for the historic 2008 election season.

The power players are almost all there Donald Rumsfeld, James Carville, Jon Stewart, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

John McCain is noticeably missing. That's because the Republican presidential nominee was never photographed by Avedon, while Obama was photographed at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as part of an assignment for The New Yorker magazine. Curators acknowledged the show might appear biased because of McCain's absence.

"It's just one of those things," said Paul Roth, curator of the Corcoran exhibit. "While we are certainly timing the show to the season, no question about that, there's no partisan motivation in doing it at all."

The subjects span the political spectrum -- Ronald Reagan and John F. Kennedy, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and gays in the military, civil rights activists and members of the American Nazi Party. Many of the portraits come from a 1976 series entitled "The Family" for Rolling Stone magazine to show the nation's political, media and corporate elite.

The grouping of Avedon's political portraits will give visitors an education on the American political process "with all its little bumps and curves and triumphs and tragedies," said Corcoran director and president Paul Greenhalgh. "These are portraits of the very highest order, and they will resonate through the centuries."

Most of the portraits were from magazine projects, and Avedon got access to top political figures through the famed fashion work he did in Vogue, Harper's Bazaar and other publications. He wasn't crazy about politics, but was mostly interested in power, said Norma Stevens, Avedon's longtime manager and now director of his foundation.

Avedon's style, though, is not always flattering for his subjects. His trademark white background and sometimes harsh lighting were among the tools he used to penetrate the masks people use in everyday life. His early work is still considered somewhat radical in modern portraiture.

Close-ups of Dwight D. Eisenhower and poet Ezra Pound were considered cruel for how vulnerable Avedon made these esteemed figures look. A large picture of "Ike" captures a grim expression, while Pound is pictured with his eyes tightly closed.

"They're just riven with anxiety," Roth said. "Now, I actually see them as quite humane."

NAACP Chairman Julian Bond, who Avedon photographed three times over the years, is pictured twice in the exhibit -- once at age 23 as part of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee in Atlanta and later at age 64 in 2004.

"It's remarkable the way he moved us," Bond said of the 1963 photo shoot when Avedon photographed a group of students on the median of a freeway. "We're like, I guess, dabs of color in this black and white photograph."

American University law professor Jamin Raskin, said he was startled to see his final portrait didn't match his own image of himself.

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