In an essay titled ”Borrowed Dogs”, Richard Avedon, an acclaimed photographer (1923-2004) talks about the first white background that is used for portraits in paintings made by Egon Schiele. Most importantly, in the same essay “what does the white background mean for the “performance” of a portraiture ” is explained by Avedon:
“one who is addicted to white backgrounds, it seems odd to me that a gray or tonal background is never described as being empty. But in a sense that’s correct. A dark background fills. A white background empties. A gray background does seem to refer to something-a sky, a wall, some atmosphere of comfort and reassurance-that a white background doesn’t admit. With the tonal background, the artist is allowed the romance of a face coming out of the dark. You won’t find any portraits with white backgrounds before Schiele. Maybe in drawings. Never in paintings, with the possible exception of the white icons of Novgorod. It’s so hard with a white background not to let the graphic element take over. It’s so hard to give emotional content to something so completely and potentially caricatural, dominated by that hard, unyielding edge. And that, of course, is the challenge and importance of it. If you can make it work successfully, a white background permits people to become symbolic of themselves.”
In addition to the power of the white background, Richard Avedon links Schiele’s imagery with gestures, poses and postures to the fashion’s highly stylized behavior. According to Avedon, Schiele understood the performance in fashion and use it in a theatrical way, in his own paintings, with an intensified and distorted significance.
Richard Avedon was not only a fashion photographer but also photographed the faces of the 20th century’s artistic, political and intellectuals such as Samuel Beckett (below), Joe Luis Borges, Stravinsky, Andy Warhol and John Ford.
Richard Avedon portrays his subjects against an empty, bright, white and seamless background. Using the power of light, especially his own light which is referred to as “Avedon lighting” and the white background, Avedon brings out the personality of his figures to the surface. During this process, he strippes away the surface by working with the surface elements such as form and color’s visual quality in an emotional and psychological context.
For an intensely performing imagery, empty backgrounds, lack of props, stylized movements, gestures, postures and behaviors for an ultimate expression are combined to create the best characterization.