Monday, July 07, 2008

Photographing Borges.

Richard Avedon . . . wanted to photograph Borges ('I photograph what I'm most afraid of, and Borges was blind') and, in 1975, he flew to Buenos Aires to do exactly that. En route, Avedon learned that Borges's mother -- with whom the writer had lived almost his entire life -- had just died that very day. Avedon assumed the session would be cancelled but the great writer received him as arranged, at four o'clock, sitting on a sofa in 'gray light'. Borges told Avedon that he admired Kipling and gave him precise instructions as to where a particular volume of his verse was to be found on the shelves. Avedon read a poem aloud and then Borges recited an Anglo-Saxon elegy. All the while the dead mother lay in an adjoining room. Later Avedon took some photographs. He was 'overwhelmed with feeling' but the photographs turned out to be 'emptier' than he had hoped. 'I thought I had somehow been so overwhelmed that I brought nothing of myself to the portrait'.

Four years later Avedon read an account by Paul Theroux of an identical visit -- the dim lighting, Kipling, the Anglo-Saxon elegy -- and saw his failure in a new light: Borges's 'performance permitted no interchange. He had taken his own portrait long before, and I could only photograph that.' Is it an exaggeration to say that the photographer was left with nothing to see, that he was, effectively, blinded by the writer?

This is not the end of the story, however, for Avedon photographed Borges again the following year, in New York. As in almost all of Avedon's portraits the subject is framed by a sheer expanse of white. This one shows an old man in a pin-stripe suit with messed-up eyes and white eyebrows looking, in Adam Gopnik's unforgiving phrase, 'not sage but vaguely comical in his complacent blindness'. The key word here is 'vaguely'; not a word one associates with Avedon who is normally the most exacting of photographers. Unusually for an Avedon picture it lacks psychological focus, as if Borges's blindness impairs the reciprocity of intention on which the photographer depends. Or perhaps the opposite is true: it brings sharply into focus a shortcoming in the photographer, suggesting that there was a potential for complacency not just in Borges but in Avedon's unyielding adherence to his own method.
Geoff Dyer, The Ongoing Moment 43-44 (Pantheon, 2005).

I've been searching the web, to no avail, for this photograph. It was in some magazine in the '80's - I think The Atlantic, but perhaps Harpers. I tore the page out and have it framed in my room, but aside from that, for all intents and purposes there are no references to the original work ?????
I can't recall whether there's a copy in Dyer's book, which -- alas -- I don't have at my fingertips.
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