The American West via Avedon's lens
In 1978, the director of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, asked Richard Avedon to photograph a series of portraits that captured the spirit of the American West.
Avedon, who was already well-known for photographing supermodels and celebrities, took the assignment. The resulting images caused "quite a furor" when they were first exhibited in 1985 at the Amon Carter Museum, said Hilarie Faberman, the Robert M. and Ruth L. Halperin Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Cantor Center for Visual Arts.
"It was the first time a museum had commissioned a photography project like this, giving Avedon complete creative license over the course of five years," she said.
Now, many of those images are on view through May 6 at the Cantor Center as part of a 20th-anniversary exhibition, In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon. Admission is free and open the public.
From 1979 to 1984, Avedon made several trips through the western United States visiting locations such as state fairs, factories, slaughterhouses, ranches and roadside diners in 13 states and 189 towns from Texas to Idaho. The people he chose to photograph—drifters, coal miners, waitresses and factory workers among them—were not the brawny cowboys or rosy-cheeked frontier families of Western lore, but everyday people coping with the often-harsh reality of rural life.
"His approach monumentalized ordinary people; they were the antithesis of what was the common view of the West at the time," Faberman said.
Avedon photographed his subjects against a white backdrop, eliminating any reference to landscape, long a staple of Western imagery. He used a large Deardorff view camera with 8-by-10-inch sheets of film, much like cameras used by photographers a century ago. Once he had the camera focused, he came out from behind it and stood face to face with his subjects to allow a rapport to develop between them.
After exposing 17,000 sheets of film photographing more than 750 subjects, the collection was ultimately whittled down to 124 dramatically oversized portraits. The haunting, stark images evoke a sense of the West—bleak, abrasive, shocking—that was quite controversial when the exhibition was first displayed. "Some felt he had demeaned the image of the Westerner, or that he was sensationalizing the down and out," Faberman said. "Others felt he had captured the true spirit of the West."
Each detail in the photographs reveals something different about the subject and his or her role in the American West. The elderly man pictured in Daniel Salozar, farmer, Sanctuario de Chimayo, New Mexico, Good Friday, 4/4/80, for example, does not fit the strapping farmer archetype. The shallow depth of field used in photographing him shows each crisp fold of his pressed, Sunday-best suit, as well as his sun-baked skin and gnarled hands. His diminutive frame barely occupies half the print, but his ramrod posture and intense gaze convey the strength and stoicism of the American farmer.
Avedon acknowledged his critics' frustration with his portrayal of everyday people and their human frailties but defended his depiction, noting, "All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."
Approximately 60 of the original portraits are part of the exhibition, including all of the project's most important and best-known images, such as Sandra Bennett, twelve year old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980, and James Story, coal miner, Somerset, Colorado, December 18, 1979.
Although he died in late 2004, Avedon began working in 2003 with John Rohrbach, the Amon Carter Museum's senior curator of photographs, on image selection and installation design of the 20-anniversary touring exhibition. The museum continued to work with the Avedon Foundation after his death to ensure that the current showing is consistent with his vision for the portraits, from how they are grouped to the color of the surrounding walls.
The exhibition will be the subject of a lecture, "The Devil and Dick Avedon: In the American West in Context," by Colin Westerbeck, contributing writer at the Los Angeles Times, at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 22, at the Cantor Arts Center. The exhibition also will be discussed at an Aurora Forum panel, "Exposures of Truth: Richard Avedon and Gordon Parks," at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, April 18, in Kresge Auditorium.