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.