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Richard Avedon’s portrait of Barack Obama stands apart from those of other politicians in the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s Portraits of Power. That’s not because it’s in color instead of the photographer’s usual black and white, or because the face of a relatively young black man is distinct from the crowd of old white guys who tend to fill high offices—and Avedon’s lens. It’s the shirt, really. Pale blue, with the top two buttons undone, and collar slightly askew. No tie. Relaxed.

The outfit is that of a community organizer, a person attired quite unlike the other politicians lining the Corcoran’s walls. Three-piece suits, ties, pinstripes, pocket squares, and flag pins comprise the armor of a politician, but Avedon was able to break down such defenses throughout his career. A Richard Avedon photo spots the details that belie the persona: socialist Norman Thomas’s chipped tooth, say, or the stain on the dress of an elegant Rose Kennedy. Those little things are especially important in an exhibit with so many homogeneous subjects—people who, knowing that they would be photographed by the famed Avedon, put on their most regal-looking outfits and prepared to face the pre-eminent fashion and portrait photographer of his time. The images are the product of a power struggle between the politician and the portraitist.

“There has to be a connection between me and the people I photograph,” Frank Goodyear III, in his catalog essay, quotes Avedon saying. “I have to get some signs that we’re in the same boat.” Goodyear details how many of Avedon’s subjects prepared for their sitting, and if they liked how the portrait turned out. We learn that Ben Bradlee is self-conscious about his hair and that Avedon requested Sen. Daniel Inouye change into a Hawaiian shirt instead of the normal suit he wore to the session. (The senator obliged.) John Kerry wanted to smile in all of his frames of his 2004 session with Avedon, concerned that the public’s perception of him during his presidential campaign was that he was too serious. Naturally, Avedon chose the shot where his lips are pinched and worry lines form parentheses on his forehead.

But Avedon wasn’t in the tank for anybody in 2004, the same year he died of a brain hemorrhage. The catalog essay also includes this gem from Karl Rove, whose portrait, hanging opposite Obama’s, radiates smarminess: “Avedon was an elitist snob who deliberately set me up.…The portrait is foolish, stupid, insulting. It makes me look like a complete idiot,” says Rove. He’s right. Rove looks like Peter Griffin from Family Guy, a cartoonish smirk above a double chin. It’s enough to makes you wonder what a Richard Avedon portrait of John McCain with Sarah Palin would look like. Would he be an elitist snob once again, setting them up for an unflattering shot, as photographer Jill Greenberg recently admitted doing with McCain during a photo shoot for the Atlantic?

Perhaps the Republican ticket wouldn’t especially interest him—after all, Avedon’s (and the exhibit’s) definition of power is very broad. But though that encourages complaints that Portraits of Power is all over the place, the breadth is an asset: Photographs of people subjected to or changed by power, rather than wielding it, keep the show from becoming an exhibit of election-year political nostalgia. The projected confidence, or lack thereof, of former presidents is interesting enough, but it’s the nervous-looking Patti Smith, the droopy-eyed Dorothy Parker, and the embracing Dr. and Mrs. Spock that keep the show moving. The photos of public figures tell us much about their personalities, but the photos of the nobodies in this show tell us a lot about America.

Bob Dylan (Photograph by Richard Avedon)

For 2004’s “Democracy,” a series Avedon was working on for the New Yorker before his death, the photographer caught a cross-section of constituents. One photo, taken at a Nevada gun show, features a couple in sweatshirts holding a rifle and their infant daughter. Nearby hangs a print of another young family—two gay men, blissfully holding their daughter with wedding-ring-adorned hands. Avedon took a similar tack three decades before: For a series he assembled during the Vietnam War, he shot Lt. Joe Hooper, the “most decorated soldier in Vietnam,” and his photograph hangs adjacent to one of a napalm victim. She is missing an eye and a nose, and has burns all over her body. Next to her, Hooper displays his medals on his chest, and grins widely with all of his teeth perfectly aligned, like an ear of corn. The contrast is ghastly.

Avedon brings out these contrasts by keeping everything else simple, regularly photographing his subjects against flat backdrops, with theatrical lighting, looking straight into the camera. The process was no simple point-and-shoot matter. He preferred to use a massive 8-by-11-foot Deardorff camera, which sat atop a tripod with an accordion-fold adjustable focus. That’s how he was able to extract such detail from his prints; you can see every single pore of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s face. But its size also presented additional challenges for a portraitist. “I hate cameras,” he once said. “They interfere, they’re always in the way. If I could just work with my eyes alone!”

Avedon could be very manipulative with his subjects. In 1957 he famously told the Duke and Duchess of Windsor that a taxi ran over his dog before proceeding to photograph them. Avedon wanted to break down their regal facades and take a swipe at them for their anti-Semitism. (“They loved dogs more than they loved Jews,” Avedon once said.) The pair looks despondent, and it’s the image that he—and perhaps the public—hoped for. As journalism, though, it seems terribly unfair. Compare that to Avedon’s portraits of the so-called Chicago Seven, who were charged with conspiracy in 1968. For his huge wall-sized prints, he arranged the activists in a police-lineup style; smartly, the Corcoran hangs the prints opposite a similar 1971 lineup of the Mission Council, the key figures leading the United States’ efforts in Vietnam. In their suits and fatigues, the Mission Council stands in a face-off against the plaid-shirted, bearded activists; to walk between the two images is to run a visual gauntlet.

Portraits of Power is not a simple study in contrasts, though. Avedon’s 1976 series, “The Family,” is curiously emotionless—a mere cataloguing of the Washington and Wall Street power elite. Like anthropological portraits recording the members of a tribe, some of the shots in the series have all the style of an ID badge. Faced with a wall primarily filled with old white men in herringbone tweed suits, the viewer’s eyes are immediately drawn to anything suggesting diversity or informality. Every member of the “family,” from Katharine Graham to Ralph Nader to Eugene McCarthy, seems worried or tense, perhaps from the pressures of power, or the anxiety of sitting for an Avedon portrait. In a personal essay, Avedon recalled the day he took his portrait of Henry Kissinger: “As I led him to the camera, he said a puzzling thing. He said, ‘Be kind to me.’ No amount of kindness on my part could make this photograph mean exactly what he—or even I—wanted it to mean. It’s a reminder of the wonder and terror that is a photograph.”

The wonder of Avedon’s photos is in how they remove our elites from all context. Set adrift against a blank background, each subject’s portrait is a dartboard for our emotions and opinions and desires. Are the Duke and Duchess victims of manipulation or merely showing their true colors? Does Karl Rove have the conniving mug of a man who stole an election or the grin of a fool? The terror of an Avedon photo is that there are no clear answers to those questions.