Richard Avedon: "In The American West"

The Print Collector's Newsletter, Vol. XVII No. 2


A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is me, must be dis.covered in someone else willing to take part in a fiction he cannot possibly know about. My concerns are not his. We have separate ambitions for the image. His need to plead his case probably goes as deep as mine, but the control is with me.

– Richard Avedon, In the American West

Richard Avedon is a celebrated photographer, and his talents in both the fashion and art industries have been duly recognized and z chronicled. His recent body of work, the American West has elicited contradictory responses, both the cloying and sentimental, psycho-babble that often accompanies work of this genre and the self-righteous charges of exploitation, careerism, and aIfectation of 'style from those who consider their opinions to be politically informed. Both extremes have validity, but neither speaks to the clear analysis the work deserves.

In the American West is a collection of 124 photographs culled from a larger body of work executed in the summers from 1979 to 1984, when Avedon and his assistants traveled through the 17 Western states in search of human icons who would correspond to Avedon's expectations. The traveling exhibition of the work was inaugurated at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, which originally commissioned the project. The series has also appeared in a predictably elegant publication of the same title by Harry Abrams, Inc. Smaller exhibitions have been mounted in galleries, for 60 of the photographs have been published in editions of six, three of which are available for sale. The portraits were made with an 8x10 Deardorff view camera, a cumbersome and archaic instrument that requires deliberation and stasis. In all, Avedon exposed 17,000 sheets of film LQ pursuit of 752 individual subjects.

Much of the contemporary imagery supporting and defining the myth of the American West has served not only the geographic region but the embodiments of the myth. The simplistic moral fables of Ronald Reagan's "Death Valley Days," the heroic and pictorialized West of Ansel Adams, the fetishistic solitude of Georgia O'Keeffe, the enterprising frontier spirit of J. R. Ewing or Blake Carrington are embedded in the collective American psyche and embody values identified with American culture. Within this domain, "image" refers not to resemblance but to a calculated public identity processed for a society of consumers who no longer experience the world directly but through images that have been constructed and selected. As a substitute for this sentimentalized West, Avedon has proposed a version that, to some extent, is indebted to the late Diane Arbus, a colleague and close friend.

The pictures are monumental in scale and range from 20xl6 in. to a massive 56xl35 in., and their authority derives, to some degree, from this scale and its assertively confrontational relationship with human dimensions. By now the Avedon format has become as recognizable as the generic passport picture, to which it owes a considerable debt: the luminosity of the white background paper and ambient natural light, the bluntly frontal descriptive qualities. Avedon's refusal to embellish and aestheticize is its own posture, albeit one that allows the maximum degree of integrity to the person depicted. The impact and technical virtuosity of these works paralyzes any immediate skepticism or critical apprehension. The original installation at the Amon Carter imposed an unnerving claustrophobia within its small exhibition rooms.

An exhibition of photographs by Richard Avedon is an event, and, as such, is presented with an efficient professionalism and perfectionism. Yet, with all the spontaneity of a well-rehearsed Broadway musical, this expert staging partially undermines the emotional urgency of the work and minimizes its sense of exploration. The theatrical sensibility informing In the American West is an insistent reminder of Avedon's career as a fashion photographer, which has been distinguished by a feel for Zeitgeist. His portraiture, in particular, has involved, as John Szarkowski observed in 1973, "many of the mythic figures and spear-carriers of the worlds of art, style, and higher salesmanship during the past twenty years." 1 Fashion and commerce have subtly influenced the response to In the American West, making Avedon's motives simultaneously suspect and admired. In his preface to the book, Avedon asserts that the work is a subjective collection of photographs. Subjectivity is, of course, the hall.mark of "art" photography, as opposed to the apparent objectivity of editorial and journalistic photography. Yet the aura of self-consciousness that shadows this work overemphasizes a need to address meaningful pursuits beyond Brooke Shields or Christian Dior. Avedon's ambition to be the Goya of contemporary photography is noble and one for which he is well qualified, but his functioning in two opposed spheres affects the work and an appraisal of his accomplishments. If the fashion industry, which Avedon has helped to define, thrives on an attempt to conceal or deny the effects of age, physical imperfection, and the inevitability of death, then Avedon's "personal" work (most notably the photographs of his dying father) can be interpreted as a refutation of these aims and a rejection of an aesthetic based on their cosmetic obscuring. Indeed, his most successful and self-confident commercial work, as well as his often savage caricatural portraits of the late '50s and '60s, is audaciously cynical of artifice. Avedon's political consciousness is intact; his involvement with emotionally confrontational photography is commendable. He remains, however, as victimized by his context, class, and social status as his subjects. Avedon is the quintessential urban and affluent photographer, yet he is motivated by the appropriate
"liberal" impulses.

The inherent contradictions and deceptive "objectivity" of liberal documentary photography have been widely acknowledged, as well as its ineffectiveness as a genre challenging social order and the status quo. Its relationship to class stratification also been noted, for, as Martha Rosler has written: "The liberal documentary assuages any stirrings of conscience in its viewers the way scratching relieves an itch and simultaneously reassures them about their relative wealth and social position .... Documentary, as we know it, carries (old) information about a group of powerless people to another group addressed as socially powerful." 2 Avedon is sensitive to the issues that dominate documentary photography and, to some extent, circumvents them by, again, maintaining that the work is a subjective document, an interpretation: "A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph 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." It is perhaps unfortunate that the official press paraphernalia issued for the exhibition places the work within the tradition of Western photography, especially the endeavors of Edward Curtis, whose early 20th-century photographic census of the "vanishing" tribes of North American Indians is now regarded as a prototype in the objectifying and mythologizing of history. Financed by J. P. Morgan and other prominent industrialists, Curtis proceeded by selecting appropriate ethnographic accoutrements in which to drape his sitters to guarantee an "authentic" depiction. It is extremist to accuse Avedon of manipulation and artifice equal to that of Curtis, despite the Avedon format. His acknowledgment of subjectivity recognizes that the act of being photographed, of becoming an Avedon, creates a fiction that reflects the priorities of both photographer and photographed.

Faulting the exhibition for its failure to present a democratic cross-section of the citizens of the Western United States, as many have done, is also ungrounded. Avedon's is not a methodically topographical pursuit in the tradition of August Sander, though he has made a deliberate attempt to identify individuals who personify values of contemporary America outside the insular urban centers. The project was a casting call for those who would furnish the most dramatic pictures, whose physiognomies had iconographical potential and could vindicate and validate Avedon's preconceptions: "The structure of the project was clear to me from the start, and each new portrait had to find a place in that structure." Avedon's selection can serve as an illustration and index to what can only be called a social class of late 20th century American society. It is a social class that despite its economic diversity-carney and rancher, drifter and miner-is unified by a sense of abandonment and betrayal by con.temporary society and the realization of its impending irrelevance to the fabric of that society. This loss is perhaps felt most acutely in the West as traditional functions are diminished by technological and economic priorities and isolation is reinforced by the rigors of the often punitive landscape.

But the fact that In the American West is a collective portrait of a people affected by their particular landscape is only partially relevant. Photographs, for example, of the residents of Queens, New York, or Providence, Rhode Island, could yield faces as dominated by their context, reflecting similar loss and solitude, maimed by diet, mediocrity, and class restrictions. Each individual portrayed is, however, presented with very specific information as to occupation or station in life, as well as the date and site of the portrait, emphasizing the photograph's temporal specificity and journalistic actuality. The most lurid portraits-the mentally unbalanced, the drifters-depict those who have acquiesced to abstract forces beyond their range and comprehension. Avedon, as the personification of the ruling class and urban sophisticate, is another agent of this control, using an appropriately technological instrument, the self-assurance of his class, and his will.

The exhibition has generated the familiar reaction of an elite whose entertainment is
Those who find an alien exotica in these pictures have not been frequent riders on the New York subways. The alienation of Ave.don's subjects is reinforced by the audience the work addresses, which has, arguably, a mobility and wider range of choices at its disposal. Interestingly enough, the selection of prints exhibited at Pace Gallery in New York favored the more explicitly sensationalist works from the larger group, calculated to shock a more anesthetized spectator. The New York audience is presumably less threatened by geographic and psychological affinity-unlike the viewers in Fort Worth (a city that bills itself "Where the West Begins") - and so more eager to endorse the veracity of Avedon's West.

The work is an invitation to observe, a socially sanctified opportunity to stare. This act of looking at the photographs replicates the camera.'s powers of observation and the act of photography itself. The mute and immobile imagery, which is simultaneously looked at and displayed, returns our glances with a nobility and candor. By the nature of our pleasure in looking, our innate voyeurism, as well as their technical perfection, the portraits are translated into aesthetic objects worthy of contemplation. Their vocabulary of physical hardship is rendered into a vocabulary of visual seduction. There is an under.riding erotic tension in these pictures, which is partly due to the implied mutual observation between viewer and viewed and the fact that these subjects express themselves through a physical language. This tension is also a reenactment of the apparently hypnotic concentration and discipline that occurred during the act of photography, the gradual submission to the photographic drama. It is indeed through the rhetoric of portraiture that one can best understand this fleeting photographic exchange.

Despite the contextual and ideological difficulties pervading this enterprise, this is a.n important and ambitious body of work. Acutely aware of the limitations of their social and cultural spheres and that life "in the American West" is unlike that portrayed in Sunset Magazine, Avedon's subjects have responded with occasional inarticulate suspicion and hostility, but most often with simple dignity, endurance, and generosity of self. It is significant that these people so unaffectedly submitted themselves to Avedon without the customary armature of a smile, or the instinctive readjustment of facade. Avedon seldom satirizes or condescends; his intentions are motivated by a profound interest in interpreting human theater as it intersects the photographic medium, a curiosity to identify an equivalence for his own internal dilemmas, and a poetic act of faith.

  1. John Szarkowski, Looking at Photographs, New York, 1973, p. 168.

  2. Martha Rosler, "In, Around, and Afterthoughts
    (On Documentary Photography)," Three Works: Martha Rosler, Halifax, 1981, pp 72-73.

Stephen Frailey is a photographer living in New York.

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