Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation and the Amon Carter Museum/©The Richard Avedon Foundation
Texas David: Richard Avedon's gelatin silver print 'Billy Mudd, Trucker, Alto, Texas, May 7, 1981' echoes Michelangelo's famous statue.
Richard Avedon's 'In the West' portraits examine the hard life at Cantor Arts Center
By Michael S. Gant
RICHARD AVEDON'S photographs read faces with a maximum of concentration and a minimum of context. He eliminates the outside world, placing his sitters in a blank whiteness of exposed film. His almost microscopic, black-and-white gelatin silver close-ups startle us with the infinite topography of human features, of hair and skin exposed in extraordinary detail. Even in his magazine work (mostly with The New Yorker over the last decade, before his death in 2004), Avedon's style registers as inimitable.
But magazine spreads and reproductions don't do justice to his large-scale works, where size is essential to the impact. The importance of scale shows dramatically in the exhibit "In the American West," now at the Cantor Arts Center. Most of these images are in the range of 5-by-4 feet, but a few loom even larger, up to 7-by-6. Red Owens, Oil Field Worker, Velma, Oklahoma fills up one wall so completely that the bulky, bearded, mud-splattered rigger looks like a mythic creature, a giant in some impossible world of Paul Bunyanesque feats of steel driving.
A famous fashion photographer, Avedon moved into art photography with his portraits of the unglamorous. His most esteemed project was "In the American West," a series taken over the course of five years in places like Ennis, Montana, Salmon, Idaho, and, yes, Deadwood, South Dakota. Avedon sought out waitresses, miners, ranchers, field hands and other hardscrabble, close-to-the land types. They were the antithesis of the fashion models, actors and literary stars Avedon usually photographed.
Working with an old-fashioned 8-x-10 view camera, Avedon took hundreds of portraits in which his subjects faced directly forward, their eyes often locking with the gaze of the lens. Because this kind of camera requires a long exposure time, Avedon's subjects had to stay still, which gives them some of the stolid gravity of 19th-century daguerreotypes.
The images, so enormously enlarged that they sometimes show seams where they have been pieced together, were exhibited at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, in 1985. This traveling show, with a large sampling from the original exhibit, marks the 20th anniversary of the achievement that solidified Avedon's reputation. Seeing these Westerners in a museum in upscale Palo Alto alters the dynamic that offended some Texans in 1985. To them, Jesus Cervantes and Manuel Heredia, tattooed and scarred prisoners from Bescar County Jail in San Antonio, must have seemed like affronts to a burgeoning regional economy. From our vantage, Benson James, a New Mexico drifter with narrow wary eyes, stringy hair and a soiled shirt half untucked, looks like a warning sign about a shredded safety net.
Courtesy The Richard Avedon Foundation and the Amon Carter Museum/©1980 The Richard Avedon Foundation
'Sandra Bennett, twelve year old, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980,' gelatin silver print mounted on aluminum panel. 60 x 47 in.
Although all the subjects stand without backdrops, contained only by narrow black print lines and simple burnished aluminum frames, they are not entirely uninflected. Here and there, Avedon uses canny props or poses. Nine-year-old B.J. Van Fleet holds a rifle in his arms, like a premonition of Columbines to come. Shirtless Texas trucker Billy Mudd cocks his hip and extends one forefinger in a stance that evokes Michelangelo's David. Coal miner James Story stands with his hands behind his back, his head slightly tilted, droplets of blackened sweat running down his face like tears—he's St. Sebastian without the arrows.
These images invite, maybe even dare us, to read meaning into them. We assume that so much grit and visible misery indicates authenticity, but Avedon himself, in the book about the show, demurred: "This is a fictional West. I don't think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne." The viewer wants to act like a screenwriter, making up stories for these vivid images, but Avedon seems to be cautioning that they are aesthetic creations as much as, or maybe more than, documents.
In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon shows through May 6 at the Cantor Arts Center, Stanford. On Thursday (Feb. 22) at 6:30pm, Colin Westerbeck talks about 'The Devil and Dick Avedon: In the American West in Context.' (650.723.4177)
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