Daily Picture Show

Richard Avedon's New Year's Eve, Revisited

"There's not a lot of great photography around New Year's," says Frank Goodyear, an associate curator of photographs at the National Portrait Gallery. "But this definitely qualifies as perhaps the most singular series of [New Year's Eve] photos that I've ever encountered."

  • Bradenburg Gate #1, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
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    Bradenburg Gate #1, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
    Richard Avedon/The Richard Avedon Foundation
  • Bradenburg Gate #3, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
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    Bradenburg Gate #3, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
    Richard Avedon/The Richard Avedon Foundation
  • Bradenburg Gate #4, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
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    Bradenburg Gate #4, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
    Richard Avedon/The Richard Avedon Foundation
  • Bradenburg Gate #8, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
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    Bradenburg Gate #8, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
    Richard Avedon/The Richard Avedon Foundation
  • Bradenburg Gate #9, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
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    Bradenburg Gate #9, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
    Richard Avedon/The Richard Avedon Foundation
  • Bradenburg Gate #15, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
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    Bradenburg Gate #15, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
    Richard Avedon/The Richard Avedon Foundation
  • Bradenburg Gate #16, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
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    Bradenburg Gate #16, Berlin, Germany, New Year's Eve, 1989
    Richard Avedon/The Richard Avedon Foundation

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That may seem like a big statement, but there really are several things working in the favor of this series. For one, it was the first New Year's Eve that Berlin had seen after the fall of the Wall. Also, the photos were made by renowned portrait photographer Richard Avedon.

Whether or not you know Avedon's name, you may know his work. His hallmark black-and-white portraits of politicians and celebrities were compositionally cautious — but emotionally theatrical — and shaped much of America's style aesthetic as we know it today.

In addition to the fashion spreads and glamor shots for which he was known — not to mention his magnum opus, In the American West — Avedon also applied his style to lesser-known reportage, including coverage of the civil rights movement and the East Louisiana State Mental Hospital. But even within Avedon's life oeuvre, the Brandenburg Gate photos seem to stand apart.

"They are incredibly different from Avedon's signature aesthetic," says Michelle Franco, program director of The Richard Avedon Foundation. They're impressionistic and shot on 35 mm, a departure from the precision of his typical, large-format work. But in a way, they also make perfect sense.

"A through line of his work is that he saw photography as a theater of sorts — that there was a kind of performance that he was documenting," says Goodyear. "So when he traveled to Berlin to photograph ... I think that that, too, was a theatrical moment that he wanted to bear witness to."

A theatrical moment indeed. The photos are downright chaotic. Without much background, you'd be hard-pressed to pinpoint what, exactly, is going on. The average photojournalist might provide some establishing shots, some context. But Avedon's camera was hungry for expressions. The camera's tilt and the snapshot-iness give the whole series a drunken quality. It's probably that feeling, above all, that Avedon wanted to capture.

"His interest in portraiture is very much evident in this series of pictures," says Goodyear, who, a few years ago was a contributing essayist for a major Avedon exhibition, Portraits of Power. "For Avedon, it's about studying people's faces."

Originally conceived for the French literary magazine Egoiste, the Brandenburg Gate series was also exhibited at the Carnegie International in Pittsburgh in 1991. But beyond that, this unassuming collection of photos has received far less love than Avedon's other work.

Twenty-two years later, it's worth revisiting. As Goodyear said, it's an unusually memorable New Year's Eve series, and according to Franco, an atypical body for Avedon. For me, it's an excuse to share one of my favorite photos — the first one in this gallery.

Will your New Year's Eve be memorable? And will you document it?


Thanks to The Richard Avedon Foundation for sharing the excerpted photographs. See the rest on the foundation's website.

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