“My camera and I, together we have the power to confer or to take away.” – Richard Avedon
In The American West, Richard Avedon’s Magnum Opus, and one of the most important bodies of photographic work to ever come out of the USA, has stood the test of time, remaining an impressive and exemplary body of portraiture even decades after its creation.
What shocked crowds of thousands at the Amon Carter Museum when it was first exhibited, Avedon’s stark, large-format photographs are now internationally revered by audiences.
The life-size portraits of the people that make up the fabric of the American-west; from oil-workers to rattlesnake handlers are so intimate in their human imperfections that audiences considered them too dark and unsettling, some even claiming to feel shame on behalf of the Texans portrayed. A state professor famously wrote in the Star-Telegram: “New Yorkers will be delighted to have their suspicions confirmed: that no one in the American West ever bathes.”
From 1979-1984, Avedon maneuvered through 189 towns and cities; through country fairs, rodeos, mining camps and even a slaughterhouse on a mission to depict the faces of the West, which he believed had been largely neglected by the government. The resulting portraits are serious, bordering on dour, and intend to reflect the transition the West was going through at the time. Facing a period of recession many US “flyover states” had been blighted by a difficult passage from a prosperous past to an uncertain future.
These run-of-the-mill people, presented against white backdrops, uniformly-lit and framed (for the most part) are drifters, ranchers, coal miners, teenagers, waitresses, and mental patients – Avedon leaves no stone unturned. The use of a large-format camera renders these figures almost tangible, the detail is so precise that each tiny hair or freckle gets the limelight.
On seeing the photos, American writer Larry McMurtry wrote: “Disappointment is there even in the youngest people photographed. It is as if they sense that a promise will soon be broken, that life will never be for them as advertised in People magazine.”
Aptly observed, McMurtry wryly speaks of the disparities that plague the US, and the frustrations are easily read in the expressions, wrinkles, torn clothes and beads of sweat that coat these figures. Avedon’s respect for each individual is apparent in his adamancy to include every piece of visually defining information of their form.
A testament to this inequality was the intelligentsia’s reaction to the photographs, patrons who were convinced Avedon was mocking his subjects, missing the point, unable to see the humanity in his work.
In reality, Avedon’s West is a study of a blighted culture characterized by prisoners entrapped by a misrepresentative political system, forced to drift or do debasing work. His severe frontality confines these ‘prisoners’ in what could be mug-shots, their crime: poverty.
The book itself features an essay by the author on his working methods along with a journal by Laura Wilson who accompanied Avedon and his team on their travels between ’79 and ’84. The volume also features crucial contextual information on some of the subjects and major issues in their areas at the time. Passages on rituals like “Rattlesnake Round-Up” and others related to mining or the Native American population serve to aid the understanding of these complex and varied characters.
These timeless images of Americans befouled by the earth visually phrase the ideas of cultural supremacy and neglect, but are a reflection of the will to power, expressed succinctly and beautifully by the master of portrait. The simplicity of their setting strips them of any pretensions, they appear confrontational and nakedly affronting, but honest, sincere and without pretensions.
These timeless images of Americans befouled by the earth visually phrase the ideas of cultural supremacy and neglect but are a reflection of the will to power, expressed succinctly and beautifully by the master of the portrait. The simplicity of their setting strips them of any pretensions, they appear confrontational and nakedly affronting, but honest, sincere and without pretensions.
‘’A portrait is not a likeness.
The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph.
All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.” – Richard Avedon
All images © The Richard Avedon Foundation
Cover image © Laura Wilson