Unfazed by All the Buzz

The portrait that took the photographic world by swarm

Richard Avedon, known for his stark black-and-white photographs of fashion models, artists and intellectuals, set out in 1979 to document the American West. Of his many portraits of cowboys, miners, truckers and other laborers, none got more attention than his picture of a part-time beekeeper named Ronald Fischer, which is part of an exhibition of Avedon portraits currently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City through January 5.

Fischer was reading a beekeeper’s magazine when he came across an ad placed by Avedon. It sought a man or woman "to be photographed with bees by a world-famous photographer," Fischer recalls. A Chicago native who lives in Oak Park, Illinois, where he works as a property manager and still keeps bees, Fischer answered the ad because, he says, he’d always wanted to make a "bee beard," in which a swarm gathers on one’s face, attracted by a caged queen bee worn like a charm around one’s neck. "It’s just something you do when there’s nothing else going on," he explains.

After Fischer mailed a Polaroid of himself, without bees, to Avedon, they arranged to meet in Davis, California, near the home of entomologist Norman E. Gary, whom Fischer had asked to assist at the session. The group convened at a tomato farm, where Avedon hung a large sheet of white paper on the shady side of a barn. Nearby, a quarter million bees mustered inside wire mesh "packages."

"As soon as I saw the packages I realized those were adults," says Fischer. Bee beards are usually made with 1- to 2-day-old insects, which lack stingers. "It bothered me," he says. "But I figured Gary knew what he was doing. He said not to worry."

Once Fischer got into position, as he remembers it, Avedon said, "Take off your shirt." Fischer complied. "OK, now take off your T-shirt," Avedon said. "Hold on!" Fischer cried, his knees knocking. "What are you doing?" Avedon, using a Deardorff camera with an 8- by 10-inch negative, told Fischer to stand still, because the slightest movement would blur the picture.

Gary dotted queen-bee pheromone—an excretion that marks bees as members of a queen’s hive—on Fischer’s head and chest. The entomologist then emptied packages of bees onto boards soaked in sugar water and, using a shovel and broom, brushed great scoops of insects into the air. "They picked up my scent and formed a cloud over my head," Fischer says. "I heard this huge buzzing. They started to land on my head, shoulders and neck."

Plick, plick, plick—thousands of bees tickled his skin. They probed his nose. "I snorted to get them out," he says. Avedon offered few instructions other than telling Fischer to look straight ahead and avoid smiling.

Avedon selected two prints: the more familiar picture, which he called the "Buddhist" version for its absence of suffering, and the "Christian" version, where Fischer grimaces, evidently in pain. In fact, bees did sting him four times during the hour and a half session.

The photograph, along with 179 others by Avedon, 79, is part of a retrospective show that spans Avedon’s 60-year career, during which he photographed all manner of prominent people, from T. S. Eliot to Marilyn Monroe. An associated book, Richard Avedon: Portraits, published by Abrams, includes essays by Avedon and the show’s curator, Maria Morris Hambourg.

The Beekeeper and other portraits from Avedon’s American West project are printed up to four feet tall and are signature works, with glowing white backgrounds, shadowless lighting and a sort of emotional blankness. The West photographs, first exhibited and published in 1985, generated controversy. Some critics praised their poignancy and renderings of rugged individualism, but others said the images manipulated and even belittled their subjects, especially those with physical disabilities. "This is a sick collection that expresses Avedon’s inner fears and terrifying nightmares," Fred McDarrah wrote at the time in Photo District News. Avedon has said, cryptically: "There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."

Fischer isn’t stung by the controversy. "I like the picture," he says of his portrait. "Obviously, it was staged; most beekeepers don’t wear their bees. But it’s still a natural picture—it’s natural bee behavior. I think those who were against Avedon before...are the ones who were most vocal about this picture when it came out."

Nowadays, when Fischer, who is single and chooses not to divulge his age, sells his Vacant Acres honey at a farmers’ market in Oak Park ($2.75 for a one-pound jar), he displays a poster of the portrait. Customers like to snap his photograph. No one, Fischer is relieved to say, has asked him to remove his shirt. Twenty-one years later, he has yet to tire of his apiarian fame. Then again, he hasn’t felt any urge to make another bee beard either.

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