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Topographical Portraits: Seven Views of Richard Avedon's In the American West

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  30 July 2009

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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.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2005

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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.

1. Agee, James, “Plans for Work: October 1937,” in James Agee: The Collected Short Prose, ed. Fitzgerald, Robert (New York: Ballantine, 1970), 159Google Scholar.

2. Avedon, Richard, In the American West (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1985)Google Scholar. Unless otherwise indicated, all subsequent Avedon and Laura Wilson quotations are from this unpaginated but fully captioned book and will appear without further reference in the main text. Relevant biographical material may be found in Evidence 1944–1994: Richard Avedon, ed. Shanahan, Mary (London: Jonathan Cape, 1995)Google Scholar, and, for this project, in Wilson, Laura, Avedon at Work in the American West, with a foreword by Larry McMurtry (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2003)Google Scholar; hereafter LW Ruedi Hofman commented on the prints during an In the American West symposium at the Amon Carter Museum on September 14, 1985; typed transcript in the Avedon Collection at the Center for Creative Photography, Tucson, AZ (hereafter CCP), 26, 38. I have written on the Avedon project before, in “On Native Grounds: Richard Avedon's West and Photographic Discourse in American Studies,” in Predecessors: Intellectual Lineages in American Studies, ed. Kroes, Rob (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1999), 7794Google Scholar. The current essay, while to some degree following on from the earlier one, complicates and, indeed, contradicts it. For the “nowhere” quotation, see Homberger, Eric, “J. P. Morgan's Nose: Photographer and Subject in American Portrait Photography,” in The Portrait in Photography, ed. Clarke, Graham (London: Reaktion, 1992), 115–31 (quotation, 131)Google Scholar.

3. Information from LW, passim; and Shanahan, , Evidence, 162–65Google Scholar. Wilson, Laura's own photography includes The Hutterites of Montana (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2000)Google Scholar.

4. The photograph of Richard Avedon and Bill Curry, by Laura Wilson, is reproduced in Shanahan, , Evidence, 78Google Scholar; with commentary, in LW, 20–23. Avedon, on an undated National Public Radio tape (Autumn 1985), in CCP; and Price, Mary, The Photograph: A Strange, Confined Space (Palo Alto, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1994), 113–14Google Scholar.

5. Avedon, Richard, Observations, with comments by Truman Capote (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1959)Google Scholar; and Avedon, and Baldwin, James, Nothing Personal (New York: Athenaeum, 1964)Google Scholar. See also Avedon, , Portraits, with an introduction by Harold Rosenberg (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976)Google Scholar and, for the Baldwin-Avedon image, Shanahan, , Evidence, 147Google Scholar. Wolfe, Tom, as reprinted in Literature and Photography: Interactions 1840–1990, ed. Rabb, Jane M. (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995), 506Google Scholar.

6. For more on photography's role in the conquest of the West, see my “Some Ambiguities of Western Photography,” in The American West as Seen by Europeans and Americans, ed. Kroes, Rob (Amsterdam: VU University Press, 1988), 282–96Google Scholar; and “The Figure of the Indian in Photographic Landscapes,” in Views of American Landscapes, ed. Gidley, Mick and Lawson-Peebles, Robert (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 199220Google Scholar. See also Sandweiss, Martha A., Print the Legend: Photography and the American West (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002)Google Scholar. The data on western photography used in this essay was taken from the foregoing and from a variety of sources too numerous to cite.

7. For Will Soule, see Current, Karen and Current, William, Photography and the Old West (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1978), 158–63Google Scholar. The Swartz image may be found at

8. Beekeeper information from Livingston, Jane, “The Art of Richard Avedon,” in Shanahan, , Evidence, 11101, esp. 88–89Google Scholar; LW, 42–47; and Sewell, Carol, “Bee Man Gets Buzz Out of His Picture,” Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Tuesday, 09 17, 1985Google Scholar, clipping in CCP. Avedon's admission is quoted by Pyne, Lynne in the Phoenix Gazette, Saturday, 08 9, 1986Google Scholar, clipping in CCP. For Erwin Smith, see

9. For Latham, Edward H., see my With One Sky Above Us: Life on an Indian Reservation at the Turn of the Century (New York: George Putnam's Sons, 1979)Google Scholar. For Edward S. Curtis, see my Edward S. Curtis and The North American Indian, Incorporated (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), esp. 63–75Google Scholar.

10. Michener, Charles, cover story on Avedon, Newsweek, 10 16, 1978, 5864, 6972 (quotation, 72)Google Scholar, clipping in CCP. Avedon is supposed to have said of the tattooed prisoners that “they looked like twins who'd never met” (LW, 53, and, for pictures, 52–57).

11. Friedlander, Lee, The American Monument (New York: Eakins Foundation, 1976)Google Scholar; one of Alinder's series appears in Alinder, James and Morris, Wright, Picture America (Boston: Little, Brown, 1982), 43Google Scholar. Klett, Mark, Manchester, Ellen, Verburg, JoAnn, et al. , Second View: The Rephotographic Survey Project (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984)Google Scholar.

12. New Topographic work was named in Jenkins, William, New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape (Rochester, N.Y.: International Museum of Photography at George Eastman House, 1975)Google Scholar, and more examples appear in Phillips, Sandra S., Betsky, Aaron, Rodriguez, Richard, et al. , Crossing the Frontier: Photographs of the Developing West (San Francisco: San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and Chronicle Books, 1997)Google Scholar. For Pfahl, John, see A Distanced Land: The Photographs of John Pfahl (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1990), esp. 53–68Google Scholar. For perceptive commentaries on such revisionist work, see Silberman, Rob, “Contemporary Photography and the Myth of the West,” in Kroes, , American West, 297325Google Scholar; and Lippard, Lucy R., The Lure of the Local: Senses of Place in a Multicentered Society (New York: New, 1997), 178–92Google Scholar.

13. Richard Avedon, quoted in Gopnik, Adam, “The Light Writer,” in Shanahan, , Evidence, 103–18 (quotation, 112)Google ScholarPubMed.

14. Morris, Wright, The Home Place, reprint edition (Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska Press, 1968)Google Scholar. For discussion of it, see Nye, David, Narratives and Spaces: Technology and the Construction of American Culture (Exeter: University of Exeter Press, 1997), 4557, 197–98Google Scholar.

15. See Pfahl, John's “Submerged Petroglyphs” in his Distanced Land, 107–15Google Scholar; and Brooks, Drex, Sweet Medicine: Sites of Indian Massacres, Battlefields, and Treaties (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1995)Google Scholar. For Lucy Lippard on Drex Brooks, see Lippard, , Lure of the Local, 182–83 (quotation, 184)Google Scholar.

16. For discussion, see my “The Figure of the Indian,” and the early chapters of Berkhofer, Robert F. Jr, The White Man's Indian: Images of the American Indian from Columbus to the Present (New York: Vintage, 1979)Google Scholar.

17. For examples of Jackson and Butcher, see, among other places, Current, and Current, , Photography and the Old West, 104–12 and 174–83Google Scholar, respectively.

18. Athearn, Robert G., The Mythic West in Twentieth-Century America (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 1986), 20Google Scholar.

19. For the Runk image, see Number 218 of the digitized Minnesota Historical Society collection at resources. For Phillips et al., see Crossing the Frontier.

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).

21. Good short discussions of these economic trends may be found in Gersmehl, Philip J., “Bonanza for the Land Miners: A Contemporary Western Saga,” in Kroes, American West, 8198Google Scholar; and in Lippard, , Lure of the Local, 135–39, 160–77Google Scholar. Lippard also quotes Wallace Stegner (139). A passionate treatment with reference to one state is Western, Samuel, Pushed off the Mountain, Sold Down the River: Wyoming's Search for its Soul (Moose, Wyo.: Homestead, 2002)Google Scholar. The Johnson sisters' story is in a transcript of the seminar at CCP. Wilson later recorded that the sisters subsequently did flee the land (LW, 85). The Mormon quotation is from Athearn, , Mythic West, 236Google Scholar.

22. See Lange, Dorothea and Taylor, Paul Schuster, An American Exodus: A Record of Human Erosion in the Thirties, reprint edition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1969)Google Scholar.

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.

25. Bordieu, Pierre, Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgement of Taste, trans. Nice, Richard (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984)Google Scholar, passim, but esp. ch. 2. Photocopy of the checklist brochure for the In the American West exhibition, September 14 through November 17, 1985, in CCP.

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.

27. Trachtenberg, , Reading American PhotographsGoogle Scholar; individual quotations are on pages xvii, xvi, and 289.

28. Sontag, Susan, On Photography (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1979), 47Google Scholar; Trachtenberg, Alan, “Walker Evans's America: A Documentary Invention,” in Observations: Essays on Documentary Photography, ed. Featherstone, David (Carmel, Calif.: Friends of Photography, 1984), 5666Google Scholar; and Conrad, “Avedon.” The Avedon quotation is from Rabb, , Literature and Photography, 402Google Scholar.

29. Bernard Berenson's remark is quoted in a discussion of this tension in my “Hoppé's Impure Portraits: Contextualising the American Types,” in Clarke, , Portrait in Photography, 132–54, 215–18 (quotation, 138)Google Scholar.

30. Badger, Gerry, “Richard Avedon: I Want to be an Artist like Diane,” in Turner, Peter and Badger, Gerry, Photo Texts (London: Travelling Light, 1988), 125360 (quotation, 135)Google Scholar. Interestingly, as early as 1964, critic Kenneth Tynan said much the same of Nothing Personal, Avedon's collaboration with Baldwin, and attributed the responsibility to Baldwin. Tynan saw Nothing Personal as a “jeremiad” in which American violence and greed are rightly castigated, but which ends in a humanist faith in “the miracle of love,” urging that “one must say yes to life.” Tynan responded, “To life as it is — greedy and sterile and anti-human? Or to some other kind of life? If the latter, how can we set about changing life as it is? There are answers to these questions, but they all involve political analysis. More's the pity that instead of advancing into politics, Baldwin withdraws into God” (review in Harper's Bazaar, November 1964, 176, clipping in CCP).

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.

32. Young, Joseph E., open letter in the Scottsdale Progress, 09 22, 1986Google Scholar, clipping in CCP; and Diane Arbus, quoted in my essay “Hoppé's Impure Portraits,” 137. I wish there were space to pursue parallels with literary grotesques in writings by Sherwood Anderson, Flannery O'Connor, and others such as Annie Proulx, who stressed the tenderness of its grotesque qualities in a review of the recent reprint edition of In the American West (2005) for the November 23, 2005, issue of the UK's The Guardian; see,11710,1648674,00.html.

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.

35. Rosenberg, , introduction to Avedon's PortraitsGoogle Scholar; Barthes, Roland, Camera Lucida, trans. Howard, Richard (London: Cape, 1981), 12Google Scholar; Billy Mudd, quoted in Rowley, Stoner, “Richard Avedon's Look at the West Raises Horizons — and Lifts Eyebrows,” Chicago Tribune, Sunday, 10 13, 1985Google Scholar, clipping in CCP; and Cadava, Eduardo, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 113–15Google Scholar.

36. Avedon, as quoted in Rabb, , Literature and Photography, xlvii, 402Google Scholar. Examples of Avedon's portraits of his father appear in Shanahan, , Evidence, 69, 155–56Google Scholar. See discussion of these images in Homberger, “J. P. Morgan's Nose.” Avedon spoke similarly of the western pictures: “I photographed what I feared: aging, death, and the despair of living” (LW, 121).

37. Bordieu, , Distinction, esp. 53–54Google Scholar.