FORT WORTH, Tex. — They stand like bent ramrods, twisted pokers and charred fence posts. Ravaged by time and molded by hard labor or unfortunate circumstance, these miners, cowboys, carnies, waitresses, rattlesnake skinners and drifters have submitted to the will of one of America's most celebrated photographers.
As they nervously faced Richard Avedon and his old-fashioned Deardorf view camera--in makeshift outdoor studios thrown up at rodeos and carnivals, truck stops and ranches--few of the subjects had a clue to his austere style or glittering reputation as a fashion photographer and portraitist. None could have guessed that his proposed "book of photographs on working men and women of the American West" would catapult their images into the blinding spotlight of art showcases and publications.
The larger-than-life-size portraits went public last weekend when an exhibition of Avedon's six-year project, "In the American West," opened at Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum, which commissioned the work. Despite competition with a Bruce Springsteen concert and the Lone Star Chili Competition, public interest reached near-fever pitch. Members of the press and invited guests flocked to opening festivities; lines formed three hours in advance for an unticketed symposium with Avedon; the museum bookstore rang up sales of the book on the project; and the artist was relentlessly peppered with questions and solicited by autograph seekers.
Avedon, 62, is a charming showman and a legendary artist, but that doesn't account for all the fascination with his latest project. In focusing on the West's unsung laborers--as well as the disinherited, the freaks, the jailbirds and the nut cases--he has touched a chord of familiarity that most observers don't want to remember but can't stop looking at. The grizzled, wizened, dirt-caked adults, the freckled, pock-mocked adolescents and the tousled children are all too believable.
Avedon's West is not the setting of movie lore. Working in his trademark style, he has pinned human specimens to stark white backgrounds and stripped away every hint of environment. He tolerates no shred of romance and precious little nobility. Dignity and a surprising degree of tenderness shine through some pictures of youths, family groups and co-workers, but even these qualities seem to be the product of battle scars. A picture of a round-faced young father holding his trusting baby daughter upside down is as sweet and nourishing as any photograph ever made, yet the overall tone of the show is devastating.
Probably the more so because there is no obvious villain. These people are not victims of the Great Depression, refugees from some foreign despot or the products of ethnic prejudice. If they are victims of anything, it is hope and its flip-side, discouragement. Predominantly hard-working white folks, they may still believe that their children can grow up to be President. You know better as you meet their gazes, but it isn't the sort of knowledge that makes you feel superior. The sense of lost dreams, wasted lives and unappreciated labor is too pervasive. This is not the vanishing West, all perfumed and riding into the sunset; it's the unsavory West that's with us.
Avedon is a slightly built fount of energy with a thick mane of graying hair. He squeezes your arm and makes you believe that he's every bit as excited about these pictures as the crowds clamoring to see them. You think that it just might be true, for he has expanded his vision and emotional range while rigidly maintaining his aesthetic identity.
He used to say that he couldn't photograph what he didn't understand. A New York artist trained by Alexey Brodovitch, former art director of Harper's Bazaar, Avedon knew glamour, wealth and power, and made a reputation for himself accordingly. Now that he has turned his attention to the under side of the West, his rap is quite different. "I discovered that we have in common everything that matters: wanting our children to have betters lives than we have, worrying about our aging parents, trying to make the most of ourselves," he said. "If I have one goal for these photographs it's that people will pay attention to them and say, 'That could be me.' "
Avedon's inspiration for the project came during a period of recuperation on a friend's ranch in Montana. He made a portrait of the late Wilbur Powell, a foreman who tended the photographer much as he cared for the livestock, and the idea for "In the American West" was planted. It wasn't until the late Mitchell A. Wilder, founding director of the Amon Carter Museum, saw Powell's portrait in Newsweek and offered Avedon the museum's assistance, however, that he could afford to spend several months each year away from his New York studio.