Published online by Cambridge University Press: 30 July 2009
This essay addresses some of the ambiguities of the western portrait project conducted by Richard Avedon (1923–2004) between 1978 and 1984, a project that resulted in both a major exhibition, initially mounted at the Anion Carter Museum of Western Art in Fort Worth, Texas, and the portfolio-sized book In the American West (1985). The book version, insofar as such a thing is possible, echoed between covers, in sequencing and scale, the design experience of the exhibition, with its large prints of the images, even though, according the person who supervised the photographic printing, Avedon's regular studio manager Rue-di Hofman, the reproductions in the book did not achieve quite the same “intensifying, clarifying” quality (his words) as the exhibition prints, which — at life size or slightly larger — were huge. All of the images were taken in the same way, with the subjects standing in front of a large sheet of white paper fixed to a wall, in natural light, and in the shade. The white-background technique is a precondition for several of the project's ambiguities. It means that the subjects of the resulting portraits are, in the perceptive words of one critic, “literally nowhere.”
Certainly, if they are from — or even of — the American West, they are not visually in the American West. Indeed, a question mark is raised over the project's referentiality in general. I stress “ambiguities” because the project really does touch upon problematic issues in a number of areas that seem, still, at the suspension of my labors, to elude firm resolution. These areas include both the obvious, such as photographic portraiture and the representation of the American West, and the less evident, such as public taste, corporate patronage, and, at the project's philosophical edge, ontology. I will seek to illuminate In the American West by situating it in several contexts — biographical, historical, geographic, aesthetic and, tentatively, philosophical — each of which should serve to bring out differing, and sometimes conflicting, aspects of the project.
Richard Avedon photographs courtesy of The Richard Avedon Foundation.
I am grateful to Amy Rule of CCP for helping me through the Avedon Collection. I would also like to thank Norma Stevens, Executive Director of The Richard Avedon Foundation, New York, for an illuminating conversation; at the same time, however, I alone am responsible for any errors here.
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20. Wilson quotes Avedon as “trying to work out problems of anthropomorphism” (LW, 70). Peter Conrad recalled Avedon stating that the severed animal heads, presented as somehow equivalent to humankind, remind us that “it's terrifying out there” — and not only in the American West (Conrad, , “Avedon: On the Making of Modern American Myths,” Harper's and Queen, 11 1985, 347–48Google Scholar, clipping in CCP).
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23. Richard Wheatcroft's life apparently maintained a tragic course, as both Wilson and Avedon witnessed it to 2003 (LW, 104–9, 128–31).
24. According to a news item in the El Paso Times for October 25, 1985, 8 (clipping in CCP), Alvarado worked as an oil-spot cleaner for Farah, the clothing manufacturer. Whether it was in fact her birthday, Avedon “borrowed the corsage from another employee and posed [her] with it.” The giving of cash on birthdays in this manner was a folk custom.
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26. Michener, Newsweek cover story, 72. Rochelle Justin may have been concerned about her bad teeth (see LW, 50). For the sharpest critique of Avedon as the servant of corporate forces, see Bolton, Richard, “In the American East: Richard Avedon Incorporated,” in The Contest of Meaning: Critical Histories of Photography, ed. Bolton, (Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1989), 261–83Google Scholar. Trachtenberg, Alan, Reading American Photographs: Images as History, Mathew Brady to Walker Evans (New York: Hill and Wang, 1989)Google Scholar. Evans, Walker, American Photographs, 50th anniversary edition (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1988)Google Scholar. My comments placing Avedon in Trachtenberg's “tradition” are in “On Native Grounds,” esp. 90–94.
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31. Interesting scholarship has been devoted to such categorization; see, for example, essays Elizabeth Edwards and Russell Roberts contributed to In Visible Light: Photography and Classification in Art, Science and the Everyday, ed. Iles, Chrissie and Roberts, Russell (Oxford: Museum of Modern Art, 1997)Google Scholar; and Smith, Shawn Michelle, American Archives: Gender, Race, and Class in Visual Culture (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1999)Google Scholar.
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33. Information on the seminar and the comment by Billy Mudd are from the seminar transcript, 60–61, in CCP. The other comments are from, first (Emory Stovall): November 12, 1985, feature in Impact, the Albuquerque Journal magazine, titled “Photographer Richard Avedon points his camera at the people of New Mexico” (6); second (Alfred Lester): September 30, 1985, feature titled “Spirit of the West” in AG Week Country Life (32); and, third (Daniel Salozar): the Impact feature (6); all clippings in CCP.
34. The remarks on the frame originated from observations made by my former student Polly Russell on the somewhat similar techniques of Annie Liebowitz.
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