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In the American West by Richard Avedon

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Is from: Southold, US
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Obregon Moderator Donor Ribbon. Awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2014 Donor Ribbon awarded for his generous support to the Fundraising Campaign 2015 Awarded for his in-depth knowledge and high level of skill in several areas.  Charter Member
Sat 27-Feb-21 11:07 AM
It may be that every portrait is a confrontation between the subject and the photographer. Each may have their own idea of what the final image should look like. Usually, it's a process of negotiation, determined by how deeply vested each of the parties are in the outcome. In this book, Richard Avedon seems to have always had his way.

Avedon was one of the most famous and brilliant of fashion photographers. In 1979, he began a project for the Amon Carter Museum to take portraits of people in the West. The portraits in the book are about ten by twelve inches, and include the outline of a view-camera plate holder as a framing device. All portraits were taken against a plain white background, outdoors in shade. Most of the people seem to be of working class, of all ages, although a few are categorized as drifters. Most are dressed in their work clothes although a few appear to be in their Sunday best, and not a few fancy cowboy shirts. Portraits usually are solo although a few show two or three people. The portraits go from the top of the subjects' heads to their waists.

The most amazing thing about these photographs is the expression, or rather the lack of expression on the subjects' faces. Avedon stood to the side of the camera and coerced the subjects into a deadpan look. (The shutter was actually released by an assistant.) I found the looks haunting. We stare directly into the people's eyes and yet little is revealed of their interior lives. Instead, the viewer is led to examine all of the details, from a hairdo, to a shirt loosely tucked into a belt. In the case of some, like oil workers and miners, they are still covered with the grime of their labors.

Included in the text is a brief explanation by Avedon of his technique and a longer background by Laura Wilson, a member of Avedon's team, describing their travels through the West. Without saying so explicitly, clearly these journeys were quest, pilgrimage and crusade.

The aesthetic experience cannot be described, even though philosophers from Emmanuel Kant to Theodor Adorno have tried. But to paraphrase Supreme Court Justice Potter Stuart, "you know it when you see it." This is breath-taking art.

At least one critic has claimed that showing the people in this way is demeaning, and that they should have been given an opportunity to spruce up. To suggest that showing a coal miner covered with the soot of work is somehow demeaning, is to suggest that work is somehow a contaminant. However, the underlying feeling I got from each photograph was of the dignity of the subjects, and of Avedon's respect for his subjects.

You can see these photographs on the Amon Carter museum's web site, but the small size doesn't do them justice. (The originals are printed forty-five inches high.) Strangely, the book has never been reprinted. You can find a used copy on Amazon for hundreds of dollars. I was fortunate to find the book in my library system, and to find it available for pickup in a brown paper bag. To me that book seemed like a holy relic, and at 35 years of age, well worn. Yet the faces staring at me from the pages provided a transcendent experience.
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