Avedon's Mission

Richard Avedon, celebrated photographer of fashion, coveted portraitist, and committed man of the left, arrived in Saigon for his first and only visit in March 1971. A lovely time of year. Warm but not yet hot, with only intermittent rain, nothing like the monsoons that would roar through Indochina a few weeks hence.

Above - fig 1: photograph register, from the Vietnam record book kept by Avedon’s technical assistant Larry Hales, 1971

He came to photograph the American officials who ran the war in Vietnam and some of those people, Vietnamese and American, affected by it. Shortly after he made his trip, he told the New York Times that he had come because “all the people I have photographed in the last year and a half have been affected by Vietnam—as has all of American life. Vietnam is an extension—oh, unfortunately—of every sick thing in America.”1

With Avedon came his young technical assistant, Larry Hales, and much equipment, including his massive, old-fashioned, and dependable Deardorff camera, which stood on its own tripod, beside the photogra- pher, and devoured the 8 x 10 plates it was fed while a shoot was taking place (fig. 1). All this equipment was — of course!—held up at customs until adequate financial incentives had been paid.2

fig. 2
The Continental Palace Hotel, Saigon, South Vietnam, March 1971, photograph by Larry Hales

Avedon and Hales checked into the Continental Palace Hotel (fig. 2), the loveliest in Saigon, a white wedding cake of a building on one of Saigon’s main streets, Tu Do, which teemed always with delivery vans, girls in flowing ao dais, the traditional dress, kids begging, American sol- diers gazing, shopping, holding hands with Vietnamese girls. Only the intermittent curfew made this and other Saigon streets quiet.

fig. 3
Richard Avedon’s military ID, issued by the Department of Defense, U.S.A.

The center of town was delightful, not threatening, in these days. Hales wrote, “Saigon seems to be a safe place. No incidents have occurred since we have been here. Across from my balcony is the Vietnamese legislature in the old French opera house and it’s perpetually surround- ed by Vietnamese soldiers with M16 rifles. Barbed wire is everywhere or coiled up on street corners for ready use. General traffic points are fortified with pill boxes and soldiers with arms are always about. Really, it isn’t
as bad as it may sound because within all this the civilians are carrying on their daily business.”3

The hotel’s rooms were large and white, with high ceilings and simple brown wooden desks. They were ideal for a traveling photographer’s stu- dio, especially as Avedon used only white backgrounds for his portraits, created by massive rolls of paper or bed sheets. Isolating his subjects from their environments, and placing them in white nothingness, he said, made them “symbolic of themselves.”4

Downstairs, the hotel had numerous halls and courtyards and dining rooms, and its great glory was a large verandah bar open to the street, where everyone came to drink coffee, pastis, citron pressé, or wine at little tables served by scores of attentive waiters. When I say every- one, I mean all the foreign journalists and their many contacts and friends—U.S. and other embassy officials, Vietnamese politicians and businessmen and women, soldiers, spies. There you met friends and made them; there information, rumors of war, telephone numbers, money all changed hands. Not surprisingly, it reminded Hales of a scene from Casablanca.

While he battled the customs bureaucracy for his cameras, Avedon spent his first few days getting to know the place, the people, and the politics. He was, by the testimony of his many friends, a delightful man, good-looking, exuberant, enquiring, seductive. I can only imagine that he had an absorbing time, with endless conversations with succes- sions of new friends on the verandah. His diary (pp. 146–47 and 156–57) is filled with the names of prominent American journalists, aid workers, U.S. officials. He met almost all of the energetic and attractive ladies and gentlemen of the press.

From them he would have learned that this was neither the best of times nor the worst of times in wartime Vietnam. At the “Five O’Clock Follies,” the daily U.S. military briefing held not far from the hotel, the spokesman read out endless lists of the provincial places where there had been fighting overnight. Names that are almost entirely forgotten now were in the headlines every day—Phu Bai, Khe Sanh, Camp Eagle.

There was, in short, business, or war, as usual for the press to cov- er—nothing huge, like the emergency of Tet 1968, when the communists launched all-out and often suicidal attacks through Saigon and many other cities of South Vietnam. Those attacks had been a political defeat for the United States, but a military defeat for the communists. Since then, under the policy of Vietnamization, which meant training Vietnam- ese troops while running down the U.S. combat presence, some progress toward creating a safer environment for the bulk of the South Vietnamese people seemed to be taking place.

After his cameras were finally released,Avedon made portraits of some of the American bureau chiefs in Saigon. He took a happy photograph of the Grand Old American of the Saigon press corps, Robert Shaplen of the New Yorker. Shaplen had first come to Vietnam in 1946, when, he had once told Avedon’s collaborator, the writer Doon Arbus, “there were about twenty Americans in town and hardly anybody back home knew where Vietnam was.”5 Shaplen expressed well the lure that Vietnam had for Western correspondents—and many others. “I’m hooked,” he told Ave- don. “Everyone’s hooked in Vietnam. The place — it grieves you, it eats you up. It devours you. It does. And once you’re hooked by it, you’re hooked.”6 Dying while reporting the war was always on everyone’s mind, he said, and he had come to terms with that because Vietnam had be- come “such a significant part of American life. ... I’d rather die here than in America. It’s a better place to die. Means more. Shouldn’t mean more but it does. There’s more reality to it.”7

Such passions were widely shared among the Vietnam press corps. To be in Vietnam and to report Vietnam was to love Vietnam, if also to be exasperated and saddened by it. For a country fighting an existential war, the South Vietnamese government was extraordinarily relaxed about foreign press and offered astonishing fluidity of movement. Reporters

Richard Avedon’s military ID, issued by the Department of Defense, U.S.A.
enjoyed the freedom to do almost whatever they wanted. It was quite unlike the communist North, where visits by independent observers were rare and, when they were allowed, totally controlled.

The U.S. military was also generous in providing access. (Far more so than in any war since.) With just a simple ID card (fig. 3), easily obtained by every resident and visiting reporter or photographer, you acquired rank and mobility. I remember being astonished that at the age of twenty-four, I was suddenly a major and could fly anywhere in the country—in the riskiest helicopter, to the remotest and most dangerous firebase, should I be so brave. It is not surprising that one gifted American writer, Michael Herr, wrote in his book Dispatches the rather shocking words, “Vietnam was what we had instead of happy childhoods.”8

fig. 4
Denis Cameron and Richard Avedon, Firebase Gladiator, South Vietnam, April 25, 1971, photograph by Larry Hales

Most reporters had a love-hate relationship with the American war effort. Many of the journalists Avedon met were, to say the least, skeptical about the war. Among the closest friends he made in the press corps was Gloria Emerson (fig. 6), a gifted, gawkily beautiful, passionate New York Times reporter who was fiercely opposed to the war.

With Emerson and her friend Denis Cameron, a brave and talented young photographer (fig. 4), Avedon drove out of Saigon to the Mekong Delta to visit the Coconut Monk, a pacifist mystic with his own temple ( p. 177 ). His concoction of Buddhism, Catholicism, and antiwar beliefs had attracted thousands of followers, many of them army deserters. Avedon’s portrait of the monk, smiling broadly, leaning toward the cam- era, with his right forefinger raised, was delightful. Together with the por- trait of Robert Shaplen, it was almost the only cheerful photograph in his Vietnam collection.

fig. 5
Richard Avedon and Larry Hales photographing a U.S.A. Army soldier, Camp Eagle (outside Phu Bai), South Vietnam, April 25, 1971, photograph by Denis Cameron

Like all the rest of us, Avedon and Hales easily got themselves America’s war-roaming laissez-passers. With Emerson and Cameron, they flew north toward the DMZ, the Demilitarized Zone, the border with North Vietnam (fig. 9). At Camp Eagle, base of the 101st Airborne, Avedon photographed against a white sheet three soldiers who had been on a long patrol into the bush (fig. 5). There was “something in their faces, in their eyes,” he said—they were shattered by their exposure to war.9 Avedon told Emerson, “I just felt rage seeing them there like that, in that place. I feel only rage toward young men who allow themselves to be put in that position with- out any idea of what they’re doing and why they are doing it. This is thepunishment for mindlessness. And the punishment can be their lives.”10 Back in Saigon, in the bedroom-studio he and Hales had set up at the Continental, Avedon made a moving portrait of a conscientious young American freelance journalist, Richard Hughes, who had created The Shoeshine Project ( pp. 144 – 45), a charity that rescued street children from the abyss of lonely despair. He also took distressing photographs of a man and a woman who had been incarcerated in South Vietnam’s infamous tiger cage prison holes in the ground (p. 153), and of a woman victim of napalm who had only one eye left in her face. “Extraordinary, gentle, direct women and without an ounce of self-pity,” he said.11 His photograph of young GIs with Vietnamese girls illustrates the sad incomprehension of many—not all—such encounters (pp. 150–51).

fig. 6
Gloria Emerson, New York Times correspondent, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 1, 1971

He then smuggled into the hotel a leper (fig. 7), heavily disguised in a long raincoat, a wide fedora, and large dark glasses. The staff was told that Monsieur Avedon had a very important visitor who had to be incognito. Avedon told Gloria Emerson that he wanted “to take the romance and

the lying out of pictures.”12 Certainly there is no romance in his Vietnam photographs.

Avedon’s principal ambition in Saigon was to create a large mural of
the top U.S. officials in Vietnam, a group known as the Mission Council (pp. 162–67). He had made a similar mural, already famous, of the Chicago Seven—the leading antiwar protestors who were charged with incite- ment to riot and other crimes at the 1968 Democratic National Conven- tion in Chicago. Finally official permission came—the embassy informed him that the men with the mission—they were all men—would pose for him on April 28.

fig. 7
Ly Sanh, leper, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 26, 1971

Avedon knew he would be given very little time for the shoot, and he prepared meticulously. In the assigned room at the embassy, Hales set up the faithful Deardorff camera and famous white sheets of paper. Avedon planned the portrait as a five-panel polyptych with Ambassador Ellsworth Bunker and General Creighton Abrams, the leader of the U.S. military effort in Vietnam, at its center. They were to be flanked by George D. Jacobson, the deputy head of CORDS, the pacification program aimed at “winning the hearts and minds” of the Vietnamese peasants, and Dep- uty Ambassador Samuel D. Berger, whose nickname was Silent Sam. The only senior official who declined to take part in the portrait sitting was, perhaps appropriately, Ted Shackley, the CIA station chief.

At the appointed hour, General Abrams arrived first by helicopter and then the civilian officials followed. Hales wrote, “Dick photographed the American Mission Council in a police lineup the same way he photo- graphed the Chicago Seven. ... I was amazed to see Dick put these stiff officials at ease.”13 Toward the right of the mural Avedon left a big white gap to denote the one absence from the group, the ghost of the man from the invisible world.

fig. 8
Louise Stone, widow of photojournalist Dana Stone, Saigon, South Vietnam, April 19, 1971

I find it hard to say what the portrait means or shows. Like other Avedon shots against a pure white field, it is stark, if not harsh. Most of the men are expressionless. In years to come the two friezelike murals would often be exhibited together: radical antigovernment protestors on one wall, senior government officials prosecuting the most controversial policy of the time on the other, two extremes of the American political spectrum face-to-face. One of Avedon’s most severe critics over the years, Hilton Kramer, wrote, “Just as antiart is, after all, only another form of art, and antipolitics only another expression of politics, so finally is Mr. Avedon’s candor only another form of romance.” Kramer argued that Avedon’s portraits of people on the left, like the Chicago Seven, “lavish a sympathy on his subjects denied, say, to William F. Buckley Jr. and Truman Capote.”14

On the other hand, Avedon himself later told the writer Sally Quinn that he had lost interest, or perhaps faith, in the New Left. “I photographed hundreds of people in the late 60s peace movement. And none of them stand up. There’s something so simple about being young. It’s so easy to be beautiful when you’re young. Young people fighting for a good cause aren’t interesting. There’s no response. No contradiction.”15

According to Paul Roth, Avedon would refer to “the uses of power” as one of his principal themes. “As a photographer, Avedon regarded politics and power in terms of their visual display. His interest was in the way power presents itself. ... Avedon’s critique of power is the puncture of a myth. It is the exposure of a mask, in deeper understanding of the person who wears it.”16

The writer Renata Adler, Avedon’s friend, wrote that he had no in- terest in politics as such, but he was interested in power. Rather oddly, he claimed to Adler that three of his commissioned photographs had saved the lives of the sitters, who had had fatal illnesses before he photo- graphed them. He told Adler that “he would never set out consciously to cure someone by means of a portrait. That would be a violation of the gift, but he had no doubt that the power had been there.”17

Adler made the point that those who sit for portraitists are very vulnerable: “they leave their power at the door”18 (fig. 8). She suggested that the subject cannot deny a photograph — cannot say he was misquoted (as in an interview) or misrepresented (as in a painted portrait)—though in fact the photographer can be just as subjective as a print journalist or a painter. Everyone is selective.19 Avedon acknowledged this. He said more than once, “All photographs are accurate; none of them is the truth. They’re representations of what’s there. ‘This jacket is cut this way’; that’s very accurate. This really did happen in front of this camera ... at a given moment. But it’s no more truth ... the given moment is part of what I’m feeling that day, what they’re feeling that day, and what I want to accomplish as an artist.”20 Asked about the old line “the camera never lies,” he responded: “[The] camera lies all the time. It’s all it does, is lie, because when you choose this moment instead of this moment, when you ... the moment you’ve made a choice, you’re lying about something larger. Lying is an ugly word. I don’t mean lying. But any artist picks and chooses what they want to paint or write about or say. Photographers are the same.”21

No wonder Henry Kissinger requested of him, “Be kind to me,” as Avedon later recalled. Avedon said this was a puzzling thing to say. “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.”22

In the case of the Mission Council, Avedon seems to have had stronger views: “I know these men,” he said. “Those are the men who work on Madison Avenue, those are the men who work for the big corporations I work for. And I have worked for them all my life. I look at their faces and I know how much they drink, I know if they cheat on their wives, I know why they’re in Vietnam, I know what their relationship is to Asian people. I understand it and then I can photograph it.”23

I am not certain what he means by this statement. Did he mean that he had photographed similar sorts of men in boardrooms on Madison Av- enue, and that this had prepared him for meeting the men from the Mis- sion Council? One close observer of the portrait suggested to me that there was an irony in the fact that the men in charge of implementing this unpopular war were now using (or at least allowing) one of the great advertising photographers of the time to sell their mission.

At the risk of being too literal, I think his statement also calls for a dif- ferent response. First, he criticizes the Mission Council for being Madison Avenue, big-corporation men. But he also says that he works for the same corporations as they do. Indeed, much of his successful career was de- voted to promoting the products of Madison Avenue. And so, one might ask, wherein lies his sense of superiority over these men?

And then, leaving aside his claim to know of the council members’ weaknesses for alcohol and extramarital sex, he insists also that he knows why they are in Vietnam. Well, each of the members of the Mission Council probably had a mixture of motives for being there. Prob- ably some of them loved it as much as Robert Shaplen did. Others were perhaps successful careerists—“Madison Avenue men”? But one might also acknowledge that some of them genuinely believed that South Vietnam deserved better than domination by the communist North, and / or that resistance to the North was crucial to America’s global Cold War struggle. Whatever the merits of that struggle, it was more significant than any corporate takeover on Madison Avenue.

One could concede that Ambassador Bunker had a touch of business, if not “Madison Avenue,” in his life, as he had started his career in his father’s sugar company. But so what? He had also had a distinguished diplomatic career (ambassador to Argentina, Italy, India, the Organization of American States) and had served as president of the American Red Cross, before President Lyndon B. Johnson asked him, in 1967, to sip from the Vietnamese chalice.

This must have been the most difficult task in the Foreign Service, but Bunker remained en poste until 1973, the year that the U.S. Congress voted to cut off military assistance to the South and an eventual communist victory was thus assured.

As for General Abrams, he had been a superb tank commander in World War II, where he had been loved by his men. When he took com- mand in Vietnam in 1968, he changed U.S. strategy (successfully) from “search and destroy” to “clear and hold” and built up the South Vietnamese forces while running down the U.S. troop numbers. By 1971 such policies were having good effect. His work, too, was in the end rendered moot by the decisions of the U.S. Congress.

It was not until April 1975 that Avedon’s Mission Council mural was first revealed to the world. It was reproduced in the New York Times at a crucial moment. South Vietnam was collapsing in chaos. As the victori- ous communists closed in on Saigon, the U.S. Embassy and other U.S. sites were mobbed by desperate Vietnamese trying to escape. In one of the enduring images of the war, the last, wretched, overladen helicopters took off from the pad on which General Abrams had touched down easily for Avedon’s portrait.

In the article accompanying the photograph in the Times, Gloria Emerson wrote, “I have been thinking about these men in the last few weeks ... I wonder if their dreams are dark and ugly things, if any of them trembled and turned away from the television films of Vietnamese refugees weeping, pleading, talking to themselves.”24 Emerson was a passionate witness, and her view was widely shared—perhaps also by Avedon himself.

I have a different view. I think that those of us who opposed the U.S. war effort, as I did, have to be humble when considering the horrific consequences of the communist victories in Indochina in April 1975. I fear that in the early 1970s we paid too much attention to the failures, frailties, and corruption of the South Vietnamese regime and too little to the ruth- less, totalitarian nature of its northern enemy. In the end, as a result of the failure of the Mission Council’s mission, South Vietnam was suppressed by the communist North, which imprisoned more than one million people in reeducation camps, and whose cruelty drove another two million or so to flee by boats.

fig. 9
Richard Avedon, C 130 turbojet en route to Phu Bai, South Vietnam, April 24, 1971, photograph by Denis Cameron

And there is a third view. This was best expressed by Lee Kuan Yew, the creator and longtime leader of modern Singapore, who said later that although U.S. intervention in Vietnam finally failed, it “bought time” for the rest of noncommunist Southeast Asia to build their societies better to resist communist assault and to bring their people real development in time of peace. Without America’s commitment until 1975, he said, that could not have happened.

In 1979, after the communist victory, I made my first trip back to Vietnam. By that time the Soviet Union had replaced the United States as Vietnam’s principal patron. I was struck by the warmth with which Westerners were greeted, in both the North and the South. Most people seemed to hope that I was American. The one Vietnamese phrase that elicited the most pleasure was Khong phai Lien Xo (“I am not a Rusian”).

Just as Avedon argued that no one photograph ever tells “the truth,” so the work of the Mission Council can be interpreted in different ways from that which the artist may have intended in his short, fierce series of portraits taken on Wednesday, April 28, 1971. Remember that it was Avedon himself who said that all photographs are accurate, but none of them is the truth.

The Art in America critic Ronny H. Cohen said that Avedon’s Mission Council photograph offered “a new kind of format for social imagery, one capable of containing complex feelings towards a critical historical is- sue.”25 Perhaps such an acknowledgment of its complexity is the fairest response to the mural.

Avedon’s intention with the portrait may be debated. And whether or not these men were the best or the brightest, it is clear that they were bound together on a complex and controversial mission. When they posed for the shot, there was much debate over whether the mission could suc- ceed. It did not.
The consequences of all of that were vast, and they are reverberating still.

1 Gloria Emerson, “Avedon Photographs a Harsh Vietnam,” New York Times, May 9, 1971, p. 52.
2 Much of the detail of Avedon’s visit comes from Hales’s fine account: Larry Hales, “Richard Avedon: America’s War in S. Vietnam, Mar–Apr 1971,” unpublished
manuscript/journal entries, April 29, 1971, Avedon archives, The Richard Avedon Foundation, New York. Quoted extensively in: Paul Roth, “Family Tree: Richard Avedon, Politics and Power, 1969–1976 (A Chronicle),” Portraits of Power
( Washington D.C.; Göttingen: Steidl, 2008), pp. 241– 81.
3 Roth,“FamilyTree,”p.253.
4 Emerson, “Avedon Photographs a Harsh Vietnam,” p. 52.
5 Richard Avedon and Doon Arbus, The Sixties (London: J. Cape, 1999), p. 105.
6 Ibid., p. 106.
7 Ibid.
8 Michael Herr, Dispatches (New York: Knopf, 1977).
9 Emerson, “Avedon Photographs a Harsh Vietnam,” p. 52.
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
13 Hales, “Richard Avedon: America’s War in S. Vietnam.”
14 Roth, “Family Tree,” p. 262.
15 Ibid., p. 259.
16 Paul Roth, “Preface,” in Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power, p. 19.
17 Renata Adler, “Introduction,” in Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power, p. 9.
18 Ibid., p. 10.
19 Ibid.
20 PBS Newshour, October 24, 2002,
trouble-exposure. 21 Ibid.
22 Maura Judkis, “Richard Avedon: Portraits of Power,” Washington City Paper, October 31, 2008.
23 Avedon to student seminar, Tokyo, 1977, quoted in Roth, “Family Tree,” p. 259.
24 Gloria Emerson, “This Symbol of Immense American Power in Vietnam,” New York
Times, April 7, 1975, p. 31. 25 Roth, “Family Tree,” p. 263.


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