In 1970, I showed my father for the first time one of the portraits that I had made of him in the years just before. He was wounded. My sense of what is beautiful was very different from his. I wrote to him to try and explain.
I’m putting this in a letter because phone calls have a way of disappearing in the whatever it is. I’m trying to put into words what I feel most deeply, not just about you, but about my work and the years of undefinable father and son between us. I’ve never understood why I’ve saved the best that’s in me for strangers like Stravinsky and not for my own father.
There was a picture of you on the piano that I saw every day when I was growing up. It was by the Bachrach studio and heavily retouched and we all used to call it “Smilin’ Jack Avedon”—it was a family joke, because it was a photograph of a man we never saw, and of a man I never knew. Years later, Bachrach did an advertisement with me—Richard Avedon, Photographer—as a subject. Their photograph of me was the same as the photograph of you. We were up on the same piano, where neither of us had ever lived.
I am trying to do something else. When you pose for a photograph, it’s behind a smile that isn’t yours. You are angry and hungry and alive. What I value in you is that intensity. I want to make portraits as intense as people. I want your intensity to pass into me, go through the camera and become a recognition to a stranger. I love your ambition and your capacity for disappointment, and that’s still as alive in you as it has ever been.
Do you remember you tried to show me how to ride a bicycle, when I was nine years old? You had come up to New Hampshire for the weekend, I think, in the summer when we were there on vacation, and you were wearing your business suit. You were showing me how to ride a bike, and you fell and I saw your face then. I remember the expression on your face when you fell. I had my box Brownie with me, and I took the picture.
I’m not making myself clear. Do you understand?