Richard Avedon: Three Singers
After the death of Whitney Houston this weekend, several people posted an isolated vocal version of “How Will I Know.” Here you can finally listen to
this woman’s voice without the 80’s arrangements. People also posted
two photographs for the cover of 1986/1987’s “I Wanna Dance with Somebody,” credited to Richard Avedon.
The first thing you notice is Avedon is shooting color, which must be at
the request of the record label. Houston’s hand is making this wave gesture while slightly pulling up her t-shirt, it exists in both frames; it’s likely Avedon either directed this or got her to hold it once she did it.
Because of the color and the focused enthusiasm, at first it’s
difficult to identify this Richard Avedon photograph. Whitney Houston was a
model and it shows: she had a face-off with Avedon and won. He never made it past the barricade of teeth. Compare it to the portraits of other singers, Janis Joplin (1969) and Chan Marshall/Cat Power (2003).
Avedon recognized the connection between
Chan Marshall and Janis Joplin’s personas and music and directed the Marshall portrait to be a quotation of his Joplin portrait. This interview with Marshall goes into their working relationship. (Imagine an 80-year-old Avedon listening to the Cat Power
The Chan Marshall-Janis Joplin pair has more in common, both have a sense of tipsy, the cigarette is a prop they can barely hold on to. Houston’s energy is the opposite, her intense sobriety melts whimsy. Compare the unbuttoned jeans in the Marshall and Houston photographs. What a difference one button and the angle of the hips makes. Marshall claims her pose was accidental (on her part, not on Avedon’s); Houston is in control of every millimeter.
In popular music, the t-shirt provides a thousand words of context. Houston’s t-shirt has a fitness-“Flashdance”-inspired cut and is perfectly clean. This is the side of the 80’s that wanted to skip backwards in time over late-60’s culture. Whitney is teasing, pulling the t-shirt up, though it’s obviously not coming off. Avedon picked out Marshall’s Bob Dylan 1988 concert t-shirt, and even cut it up. He told her, “Keep pulling it up - just like it’s a towel or something.” Marshall’s hand gesture holding the shirt up is awkward and wonderful, it helps reveal the text on the shirt, but also makes it seem like an inconvenient artifact about to be cast off.
Read Caille Millner’s great piece “On Whitney Houston, Black Middle Class Girls, and the Reagan Years.