Richard Avedon’s American West | EVI PAPADOPOULOU

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Richard Avedon appears as a pioneer of the photography of the 20th century. His interest for various genres of photography and the innovations he introduced characterize his inventive spirit. He is the example of the artist who combines his commercial work with his personal oeuvre without conceding to recessions. Apart from fashion photography and the portraits of famous people, Avedon worked on the representation of every day life and the deconstruction of the stereotypes concerning it, revealing his political conscience at the same time.

In March 1979, he began an ambitious project that drove him to the American West in order to capture the life of this mythical region, whose image is associated with the films of cowboys and folk traditions. This project lasted six years and resulted in the edition of the book “In the American West” and the homonymous exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum1. His intention was to depict the life of ordinary workers, staying away from picturesque and affected representations.

It was not the first time he recorded everyday life and models that do not belong to the jet set. He had been to Saigon in May 1971 in order to capture the situation in Vietnam, considering it as an integral part of the American history. He had declared, «the reason, for which I was there, was to photograph all those who had been affected by the war in Vietnam. The situation in Vietnam is alas an extension of what is sick in the United States of America2». In that point of his carrier, his work came close to the photo reportage. This mission resulted in photographic portraits of victims of napalm bombs whose deformed faces and bodies are the proof of the horror of the war. By means of his photographs, he wanted to deem the politics of the United States and condemn what his compatriots had already done.

Having the support of the Amon Carter Museum of Forth Worth in Texas he headed to the West in order to capture the photographs-documents of the life of this region. He concentrated on specific activities like the cattle breeding, the work in the mines, the exploitation of oil deposits, the carnage of animals, the picking of serpents. For this project, he met approximately six hundred people looking for the faces via which he wanted to express his feelings and thoughts for the American West. He photographed vagabonds, prisoners, cowboys of the rodeo, workers in the circus; people that formed his vision of truth regarding the American West.

These photos form a big narration, varying from elegance to aggressiveness and from the objective representation to the inner melancholy of the ramblers, as he wanted to offer a new interpretation of the American West, concentrating on anonymous people, who strangely became familiar and representative of the American culture. These people reached a level of importance and eccentricity, similar to that of the famous. Avedon presented them in front of a white background, as wanted to make the spectators concentrate on the faces of his models and not on the landscape. In addition, in his photographs we become aware of his preference for the graphic elements. The special lighting helped him eliminate the sculptural effects and the sense of the third dimension and thus give a graphic force to his pictures, due to the imposition of the white background.

His photographs, although they belong to the genre of the photo reportage, they show at the same time his predilection for the mise en scène. Working clothes, dirty faces and bodies, body deformations serve his intentions. The photograph of Roland Fischer, beekeeper in 1981, is a representative example of the way he premeditates on his subject. He admits that for the realization of the photo he had to publish an announcement looking for a person that could meet his demands. Moreover, he had already completed the design of what he wished to photograph. When he received the photograph of Roland Fischer he knew he had found the face he needed. For the realization of the photograph, the beekeeper had to stay still, bearing alive bees on his body and head. The result was the production of two photographs, one where Fischer, according to Avedon, suffered the sting of the insects and bore his torture as a Christian martyr and the other where he seemed indifferent to the torture in a way it recalled the nirvana of the Buddhist monks3.

These photographs were exposed for the first time in situ. After a session with the miners of Colorado in North Fork Valley, Avedon wanted to thank his models and placed their photographic portraits on the exterior walls of the mine where they worked. For them, the vision of the photographer revealed various aspects of their personality and way of life that they were not aware of. The same sense of revelation overwhelmed the spectators, including the models that the photographer had invited, when the exhibition opened its doors at the Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth Texas. The gigantic dimensions of the prints gave to the photographs a force equivalent to that of the photographs-social documents and a psychological impact akin to that of the portraits he had done during the previous years.

Richard Avedon was not the first to work on the photography of the American West. After the First World War photography turned to the street searching for the identity of the United States of America. Walker Evans and the photographers of the « Photo League »represent this tendency of the American photography toward the documentary, culminating in the work of Robert Frank « The Americans». The realistic approach, the depictions of ordinary life and the promotion of the landscape were until then the common factors of the photographs that constituted documents of the contemporary life in America. Avedon shares these inquietudes, but at the same time he differs. His intention was to combine the photo reportage with his personal vision. The presentation of everyday life took place under his conditions. The models were removed from their context and were presented in front of the bare background of a studio without any picturesque artifice. That way he aimed to break with the stereotypes concerning the representation of life in this region and to transform ordinary people in carriers of the history of the west.

For him the approach of the region via strangers and unfamiliar situations was a challenge. He admitted that for this mission he photographed what he was afraid of, old age, death and frustration of life. His peculiar models have similarities with the work of Diane Arbus, who also looked for her subjects among marginalized persons that she used to call her «freaks». Although Arbus tried to get to know her models, enter in their world and become a part of their life, Avedon adopted the role of the director and looked for a stylistic approach4. For him style was a form of political expression. After all, his decision to choose vagabonds, fugitives of life, workers unhappy with their life and their work as models constitutes a criticism of the American dream and of the idyllic idea for this region.

For photographs of the series “In the American West” you can visit the website of the Richard Avedon Foundation, www.richardavedon.com

1. Richard Avedon, Images de l’Ouest, Chêne, Paris 1986.

2.Jane Livingstone-Adam Gopnik, Evidence 1944-1994:Richard Avedon,Schirmer-Mosel, Munich 1994, p.44

3. Maria Morris Hambourg-Mia Fineman, Richard Avedon Portraits, Harry N. Abrams Incorporated-The Metropolitan Museum of Art,New York 2002, n.p.

4. Suzan Weilley, “Avedon goes west”, Art News, March 1986, p.90