In the American West is a complicated stew composed of various ingredients. While Avedon certainly addresses Western myths and refers to the artists who visualized them, his photographs also act as social commentary and as an affirmation of his own photographic style.
Stylistic Trials and Documentary Tribulations in Richard Avedon’s In the American West (1990)
By Samantha Krukowski
The American West has been perceived as a space of mythical proportions for centuries, even before European settlers arrived in the United States and began to explore and colonize the country. Rather than being viewed as a specific place, the expansive West has been a symbol encompassing the fears, hopes, dreams and beliefs of numerous generations. The Western myth has evolved to mirror social change–like other myths, it has not remained static. These permutations have been recorded by visual artists and writers whose work essentially serves as a history of the myth of the West.
This paper is a careful study of a book of Western photographs by the contemporary photographer Richard Avedon. While Avedon is probably best known for his magazine work and his photographs of the rich and famous, In the American West is his attempt to reinterpret and redefine the Western myth. He shows us the West through portraits of people who live there, specifically those who are the most unfortunate–the underprivileged, disenfranchised and the bizarre. By depicting the West as a bleak and barren environment that does not reward its inhabitants, Avedon demonstrates his awareness of myths of the West that extolled it as the land of new wealth, social harmony and progress. And by choosing to illustrate his West through images, Avedon steps in the tracks of artists like Edward Curtis who set out to document North American Indians in the nineteenth century. Avedon has created a version of the West with a gallery of images, just as Curtis created a picture of the Indian in his multi-volume work The North American Indian. Yet Avedon’s work draws on other sources as well, especially the work of the German documentary photographer August Sander and the American photographer Diane Arbus. In the American West is a complicated stew composed of various ingredients. While Avedon certainly addresses Western myths and refers to the artists who visualized them, his photographs also act as social commentary and as an affirmation of his own photographic style.
The images that Avedon offers as Western portraits do not create an entirely coherent or convincing picture about a part of the American West today. Avedon has mixed a documentary format with his own fictional narrative.
The images that Avedon offers as Western portraits do not create an entirely coherent or convincing picture about a part of the American West today. Avedon has mixed a documentary format with his own fictional narrative. While he makes reference to certain precedents, his intimations seem superficial and act as a context in which he can validate his work. He has presented us with images of people who have not prospered in the West, yet has removed them from their context and exposed them to highly technical photography processes which leave us unable to identify or sympathize with them. He has distinguished this work from his commercial photography and exhibited it in museums and galleries nationwide, yet it is full of the same stylistic manipulations that are integral to his fashion shots. In fact, the style of Avedon’s Western photographs is often more important than their content, and where this is the case, the effect may initially be provocative but not necessarily lasting.
This study is organized to address a short history of Western myths, especially those which pertain to Avedon’s work. I discuss the problems of “truthful” representation as they pertain to Edward Curtis and as they relate to the photographic medium. The bulk of my paper is devoted to the format and content of Avedon’s In the American West which illuminates some of Avedon’s intentions. Last, I make reference to the plethora of critical reviews and commentaries which were provoked by Avedon’s Western project in my final analysis of his work.
The American West as Mythic Space
Most of the myths about the American West have described it as a place of intrigue and possibility. These myths, on the whole, have been positive interpretations that use the West as a metaphor for human behavior and potential. This symbolic West has had little to do with the realities of the land. One of the earliest perceptions about the American West was that it was a tabula rasa, an uninhabited space to be colonized with no plausible resistance. According to this myth, there were no Native Americans; the American continent was a vast and empty wilderness which set the stage for great expectations. William Gilpin, a friend of Andrew Jackson’s, related the movement towards the Pacific to the advance of civilization when he wrote in 1847:
“The untransacted destiny of the American people is to subdue the continent–to rush over this vast field to the Pacific Ocean–to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward…–to agitate these herculean masses–to establish a new order in human affairs…–to regenerate superannuated nations–a new civilization–to confirm the destiny of the human race–to carry the career of mankind to its culminating point–to cause a stagnant people to be reborn–to perfect science–to emblazon history with the conquest of peace–to shed a new and resplendent glory upon mankind–to unite the world in one social family–to dissolve the spell of tyranny and exalt charity–to absolve the curse that weighs down humanity, and to shed blessings round the world!”1
This exuberant statement demonstrates that the journey Westward was as much a physical trip as a spiritual and moral one. The West stood for a plethora of ideals: a new human order, a perfection of technology, and a realization of values like peace, charity and unity.
In the 1840’s and 1850’s, the Enlightenment values of the eighteenth century began to be replaced by those of the Romantic values of the nineteenth. While the urge to colonize the Western United States remained strong, the Western landscape also began to symbolize freedom. Urban conditions were deteriorating and fur trappers and Indians in the West became symbols of deliverance from the degenerating city lifetstyle. Trappers were viewed by settlers as men who straddled the line between civilization and the wilderness. They characterized the conflict between a respect for the laws and values in society and an increasing desire for individual and instinctual liberty. This kind of sentimentality carried over into interpretations of the Indian and the Indian life style. The Indian was seen as a noble savage, a part of a wilderness that invited a total escape from the restraints of social order.
The Romantic movement also engendered a nostalgia for the passage of time. This was combined with a belief in the inevitable progress of civilization. Because the march of progress was moving westward, and Indians lived in the West, their passing was seen as unavoidable. This became part of an ethnographic myth in which the Indian was construed to be a vanishing race. It was this disposition that inspired visual artists to document the West and the Indians who lived there before they were entirely wiped out. None of these artists who were so fascinated by the Indian had any intent to preserve their culture.
So many artists set out to document the American Indian that to discuss them all would require another paper. I will use the work of Edward Curtis to illustrate how Western myths were embodied in his photographic images. His photographs embody many of the same ideas that were visualized by painters like George Catlin and Karl Bodmer, and his medium is better related to the topic at hand. While Curtis spoke of documenting the Indian, and his photographs do serve as historical evidence, they are also stylized and influenced by the beliefs of his time. Curtis’ approach to the photographic medium and to the West both contrasts and clarifies the work of Richard Avedon which was produced nearly a century later.
Edward Curtis embarked on a monumental project in 1906 to document all of the North American Indian tribes. In the same year, his project was funded by John Pierpont Morgan who subsidized Curtis for close to five years. Although Curtis did not successfully represent all of the tribes before his death, he published a twenty volume work entitled The North American Indian during the years 1907-30 which included over 2500 images.2 This massive body of work contains different genres of photographs: artifacts, daily life, tableaux, portraits and skills or crafts. Curtis’ photographs provide us with source material about the lifestyle of the American Indian that would never have been available without his efforts. He was devoted to and enchanted by the Indians and he spent most of his life with them. While Curtis deserves enormous credit for the work he completed, my purpose here is to examine his photographs as subjective records which speak to the problems of “documentation” in general.
When Curtis photographed his Indians, most of the tribes he visited had been subjected to white culture and had experienced degrees of modernization. Curtis therefore had to reconstruct the “pure” Indian lifestyle with the help of his subjects. His project was dependent on the knowledge and memory of each tribe he photographed, and he sought out the Indians who could give him the most information. Curtis’s Indian images thus contain props which replace any items which were no longer existent. This approach, which was the only one available to him at the time, laid an imaginative foundation for what was meant to be a project of truthful representation. Curtis was physically unable to access Indian lifestyles as they were before their cultures were changed by settlers, and this colored his original intent.
A glance at any of the Curtis photographs reveals his distinctive style. Each photograph is tinted with a soft, reddish haze which he achieved by finishing the reverse side of each glass negative with a gold tone.3 He combined this effect with a use of natural light as a modeling tool. Additionally, he alternated between hard and soft focus in his photographs to imply their emotional content. Each image also reveals a structured composition–Curtis used a very specific camera angle. His portraits therefore read like maps, where the lines on his subject’s faces are emphasized to tell the nostalgic story of time passing. His landscapes are ethereal and romantic and depict Indians riding or looking towards the horizon. All of Curtis’ photographs demonstrate that he was influenced by the beliefs of his time.
Curtis’ intent was clearly to document the North American Indian in the most truthful manner possible. His representations, however, were distorted by his personal sentiments, the style, content and construction of his photographs, and the cultural value system to which he was exposed in the late nineteenth century. Avedon’s work, too, was influenced by all of these factors.
Two images in particular, The Vanishing Race and Watching the Dancers, demonstrate Curtis’ faith in the ethnographic myth that I mentioned above. In The Vanishing Race, an emphasis is placed on the composition and the movement of the horses, which are heading towards the horizon. The faces and dress of the Indians who ride them are not important; this is an image which depicts Curtis’ conviction that the Indians were doomed to extinction and he shows them riding off into eternity. The second image, Watching the Dancers, is similar in its message. While it does portray some aspects of tribal costume–the white robes and the circular hairstyles–the image is of Indians perched on the brink of a precipice while they watch their brethren dance below. It is as if Curtis is suggesting that even the Indians were aware of their own passing.
This short analysis of Edward Curtis’s photographs includes a number of evaluative standards which can be applied to Richard Avedon’s Western photographs. Curtis’ intent was clearly to document the North American Indian in the most truthful manner possible. His representations, however, were distorted by his personal sentiments, the style, content and construction of his photographs, and the cultural value system to which he was exposed in the late nineteenth century. Avedon’s work, too, was influenced by all of these factors.
In the American West consists of approximately 125 black and white portraits. The portraits are mostly of people, although towards the end of the book there is an unexpected series of slaughtered animals.
Richard Avedon’s Western Project
In 1978, Richard Avedon embarked upon a five year photographic project in the Western United States. The project was sponsored by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas; the museum that is considered the historical information center of the West. Avedon’s Western project was exhibited first at the Amon Carter Museum in the fall of 1985. From there, his photographs were shown in numerous galleries nationwide. In addition, a book was published in conjunction with the exhibition but under the publishing company of Harry N. Abrams entitled In the American West. This is the book that forms the basis for this study.
In the American West consists of approximately 125 black and white portraits. The portraits are mostly of people, although towards the end of the book there is an unexpected series of slaughtered animals. Each shot is 10″ W x 12.5″ H in size and fringed by a black edge which resembles the border of a negative and serves as a frame for each image.4 There is no landscape or or pictorial background in any of the photographs; Avedon depicts his subjects against a blank white surface. At the bottom of each picture is a caption which mentions the subject’s name, occupation, town and state of residence, and the date of the photograph. For example, one reads “Jimmy Lopez, gypsum miner, Sweetwater, Texas, 6/15/79.” There is also narrative text interspersed between the photographs. The text is broken up into a foreword, which was written by Avedon, and a background section which was written by his assistant Laura Wilson. The foreword describes Avedon’s photographic methods and the way that he works with his sitters. The background recounts, in informal, stream-of-consciousness prose, the experiences of the photography team while carrying out the project as they moved from rattlesnake catching contests to slaughterhouses, from tattoo parlors and bars to oil fields and mental hospitals.
Avedon used an 8 x 10 view camera, a tool with particularly strong optical capacity, which he set on a tripod.5 He photographed his subjects against a sheet of white paper which he attached to any available building or structure. Avedon eliminated, as much as he could, the effects of natural light. He said: “I work(ed) in the shade because sunshine creates shadows, highlights, accents on a surface that seem to tell you where to look. I want(ed) the source of light to be invisible so as to neutralize its role in the appearance of things.”6 Avedon thus removed his sitters from an external world that their appearance, and their most focused features tell another kind of narrative. Their faces and bodies are story sites and their wrinkles, freckles, scars and features attest to their particular Western experience.
Stylistically, Avedon’s Western portraits appear more constructed than those by Curtis. Few of his subjects look relaxed or natural in front of the camera, though that was Avedon’s intent. He mentioned that all of the photographs are an “attempt to achieve an illusion: that everything embodied in the photograph simply happened, that the person in the portrait was always there, was never told to stand there, was never encouraged to hide his hands, and in the end was not even in the presence of a photographer.”7 The format of the photographs does not allow this natural quality to come through. Rather, they share other characteristics which also betray Avedon’s presence.
All of Avedon’s subjects seem to respond to the camera in a certain way. They stare directly at the viewer with very little expression. Upon closer examination, these seemingly void faces do contain numerous nuances of emotion. To Avedon it is this kind of face that discloses the most information. He said in one interview that “the true meaning hidden in a face is revealed in repose.”8 In addition to a characteristic outlook, each of Avedon’s sitters shares a quality of ungainliness or discomfort. This awkwardness is manifested in photographs where clothing does not fit the wearer and is often sorely outdated: zippers bulge, shirts hang unevenly or outfits are begrimed by the subject’s work. It is also evident in the bodies of Avedon’s subjects where the original asymmetry is often extended to include mutilation or scarification. A good percentage of Avedon’s subjects are actually missing limbs or are otherwise deformed. Avedon’s inclusion of a series of photographs of dead animals underscores his intent to make mutilation and death an undercurrent in his Western photographs.
Avedon’s subjects provide a subtext for the entire book. Avedon has not only chosen to portray anatomically abnormal people as Western types, but he has also created other roles. Some of them relate to his sitter’s jobs. Others, women, for example, are typecast in several domains. They are depicted as housewives (pregnant or not), temptresses, dolls, or naive-looking children. Avedon includes another category of Westerners in his depictions of freaks. These subjects either break from the other images in the book or are social outcasts and oddities who would be recognizable in any context. The themes and characters which permeate In the American West and the categories which are apparent within it clarify Avedon’s picture of the West as one at odds with the myths of the West which preceded it.
A number of photographs exemplify the look or stare of the subject that Avedon tried to capture or that he created. The portrait of Robert Dixon, a meat packer from Aurora, Colorado taken in June of 1983 is a full face shot. He stares directly forward and only the very frontal features of his face are in focus–his ears and neck blur into the background so that his expression carries the most weight. Dixon’s face is not terribly peculiar–he could as easily be from Maine as from Colorado–it is his face as Avedon has captured it within the context of the entire book that makes him interesting. Dixon’s stare is not as direct as it seems. His expression suggests that he has a secret–that he knows something or has experienced something that he is hiding. His mouth is slightly turned up at the left and his lips seem almost to smirk. In accordance, his left eye squints. Dixon’s look invokes an attitude; one that is suspicious, indolent, and even slightly challenging. The immediacy of the Dixon portrait is a qualtiy which permeates all of the photographs in In the American West. Because there is nothing bizarre in his photograph which would distract the viewer from Dixon’s face, it serves as a point of reference for the whole body of photographs which necessitate the same scrutiny, expecially when they appear more provocative.
Among the most disturbing images in Avedon’s Western photographs are those of people who have been maimed or deformed.
Among the most disturbing images in Avedon’s Western photographs are those of people who have been maimed or deformed. One photograph of Juan Patricio Lobato, a carney from Rocky Ford, Colorado, was taken in August, 1980. Lobato is not a white Westerner, as are the majority of the portraits in the book, nor is he a Native American. He could be an number of immigrant types–Mexican, Dominican or Puerto Rican. In all probability he emigrated to the West in search of better opportunities but from this photograph it does not appear that he has found any. Lobato is evidently a scoliosis victim because of the abnormal curvature of his spine. It is ironic, despite this slight deformity that he is a carney–someone who works in a carnival which is meant to be a place of entertainment. Lobato does not look like someone who would want to create fun for others. The cigarettes stuffed into his pants, his large belt buckle, the chain attached to his wallet and the style of his rolled up shirt are all status symbols, though of a lower class. They lend him a tough quality, which is emphasized, like Dixon, in his direct stare which here appears wary and devious. This photograph seems particularly posed. Lobato’s hands are behind his back, lending him an almost submissive and imprisoned posture. The composition is formalized as well. Lobato’s brown body and black clothing assumes a sculptural shape against the white background. Because Lobato can be viewed so clearly as a form, he is depersonalized beyond his lack of context.
The mutilation theme is extended even more explicitly in two other photographs. One is that of Alfred Lester, a dryland farmer from Charboneau, North Dakota whose picture was taken in August, 1982. Lester is a wizened old man who wears an expression of pain and aged vulnerability. He is missing his right arm while his left hand is gnarled and arthritic. His face is overly wrinkled, his mouth pulled taut and his lips pinched together. Lester’s clothing does not fit him; his pants are unbuttoned, he has only one suspender; his outfit responds to the asymmetry of his body. His pants zipper is pulled to his left and his shirt towards his right where the empty sleeve is tucked into his jeans. Even his legs appear to be different sizes. The odd form of Lester’s body is reflected in the strange shape of his head and the awkward protrusion of his ears, both of which contribute to the form of his body’s outline, which is emphasized as Lobato’s is. The fact that Lester is a farmer underscores the idea that the land has not given back to him what he has put into it. Conversely, it has taken from him parts of his body, his strength and any optimism he had. From Lester and Lobato we learn that the West as the land of golden opportunity was a lie.
Another photograph which continues the mutilation theme is that of Dave Timothey, a nuclear fallout victim from Orem, Utah who was photographed in August, 1980. The atom bomb was developed in the West and tested there and Timothey has been deformed by exposure to radiation. He is an icon of the progressive technology of the West which has lashed out at its creators. Timothey’s neck is distended and bones appear along his shoulders that do not anatomically belong there. His neck is scarred in front, apparently the result of a surgical procedure. Timothey’s gaze seems accusatory and pained. In this photograph, the notion of person as specimen or vessel of experience is particularly strong. It is not the lines on his face that tell the story but the malformed shape of his body.
Avedon’s portraits of dead animals dramatize the theme represented by Lobato, Lester and Timothy. One shot of a steer from a slaughterhouse in Amarillo, Texas from November of 1981 shows the beast’s head oozing while its tongue lolls outward. In a way, this shot has a certain personality and expression like the human portraits. The steer is cartoon like with its tongue extended. Because it has no skin, the musculature is visible underneath, revealing bulging eyes like those of Popeye. The head is held up by a pair of hands and is thus depicted as a trophy. Avedon used a series of shocking photographs like these slaughtered animals for a similar purpose in his earlier book of 1976, Portraits. In that book, the majority of the photographs were of stars–musicians, actors and actresses, directors and dancers. At its end, Avedon incorporated a series of portraits of his father as he was dying of cancer. The contrast between a touching and personal memoir and the starlets is similar to the contrast betweeen the dead and bloody animals and disenfranchised human subjects. As one reviewer commented: “As his father was the only unprominent person in the first campaign, so the animals are the only nonhuman subjects in the second. It’s as if Avedon were each time underlining his philosophy by breaking his category.”9 Although Avedon is breaking categories, he is also comparing them. By including his dying father with portraits of celebrities, Avedon could comment on the false glamour in the world of celebrities, emphasizing death as a force that all of the money and fame in the world cannot counteract. With the animals in In the American West, Avedon presents us with a harsh picture of a decaying West which is visible in his subjects faces and brought home by the dead animal series. With these images of crippled people and dead animals Avedon is capsizing the earliest progressive Western myths as well as the most recent ones. He is showing us a segment of Western society (stylized to emphasize his point of view) that has not benefited from living in the West but is in the process of being destroyed by it.
Avedon continues this debunking of Western myths in his photographs of stereotypical Western people. The question of faith has always been at issue in the West. Spaniards were the first to try to Christianize the Indians, and American settlers attempted to do the same with little interest in understanding or respecting the Indians’ spiritual connection to their land. More recently, Americans have traipsed across the country in search of the very spiritual connection that was originally destroyed for the Indians. Avedon’s response to these precedents is visible in his photograph of the Reverend Andrew Goodwin, a Baptist pastor from Miles City, Montana who was shot in May, 1981. Goodwin’s three piece suit and slicked back pompadour make him look about as trustworthy as a used car salesman. If this man represents the new faith of the West, then Avedon’s dismal forecast may be correct.
Avedon also inverts the notion of masculinity and the myth of the cowboy in his photograph of Harrison Tsosie, a cowboy from a Navajo reservation in Window Rock, Arizona which was taken in June, 1979. Where the cowboy has traditionally been a white icon of male strength and individuality, Avedon portrays a skinny Indian in a feigned pose of toughness. Tsosie has all of the gear; the hat–the western shirt, the belt buckle, the rope and the chaps–but he doesn’t have the presence of the Marlboro Man. This is Avedon’s strict inversion of what has come before him.
Other versions of the West are demystified in Avedon’s depictions of women and children. In early paintings by artists in the mid-1800’s, the inclusion of women and children conveyed a sense of safety, permanence and continuity about the West. They represented the possibility of true and happy living on the frontier. Avedon’s children only seem to be following the paths of their parents. They are as warped by their place of habitation as his adults, though they appear slightly more vulnerable and cast into roles that they do not seem old enough to handle. Take, for example, B.J. Van Fleet, a nine year old from Ennis, Montana who was photographed in July, 1982. The principle image in the photograph, besides Fleet, is a rifle which he cradles in his arms almost like a child. Fleet’s clothing and fingernails are dirty, his hands are scratched. His expression is resigned, tough and partially sad. This is a child who is not playing with toy guns but who knows about the real thing. Fleet’s oversized clothing further sets him into an adult role. He seems imposed upon, as if a weight (perhaps symbolized by the weight of the weapon he holds) is pulling him down.
Another photograph of Boyd Fortin, a thirteen year old from Sweetwater, Texas photographed in March, 1979, echoes the issues brought up by the image of Fleet. Fortin holds up a dead rattlesnake which is not only deceased but gutted, its entrails a slimy, webbed mass in his hands and on his clothing.
Another photograph of Boyd Fortin, a thirteen year old from Sweetwater, Texas photographed in March, 1979, echoes the issues brought up by the image of Fleet. Fortin holds up a dead rattlesnake which is not only deceased but gutted, its entrails a slimy, webbed mass in his hands and on his clothing. Fortin’s white apron is smeared with blood and his expression is hardened; it also suggests that he is learning to play a role. His brows are creased and his lips pursed into a determined countenance. The disgusting nature of the composition does not fit at all with the gossipy style of the narrative in the book that gives the background for this photograph. The story is about a yearly rattlesnake roundup in Sweetwater, Texas:
“Farmers and ranchers, oil field roustabouts, railroad clerks, and kids all comb the countryside using large cylinders of pressurized gas to flush out snakes from their dens in the rock ledges. There is no market for a dead snake. The meat spoils and it is hard to skin. The hunters bring them in alive in plastic trash cans and gunny sacks. There is a cash prize for longest…The Jaycees Wives Club cut them up and deep fry them; others make the skins and carcasses into curios–paperweights, earrings, and beer mugs. Friday night, Miss Snake Charmer is chosen from the senior class of Sweetwater High School, and Saturday night there is a Rattlesnake Dance. These small town activities, here the romanticized and quirky entertainment of the underpriveleged and not so cultured, have little to do with the harsh, surface reality presented by the photograph of Fortin and his dead snake. He, too, is youth turned sour.
One of the most prominent images of a child in Avedon’s book is that of Sandra Bennett, a twelve year old from Rocky Ford, Colorado who was photographed in August, 1980. Bennett not only graces the cover of the book but her image became the representative of Avedon’s Western project since it was used most for publicity purposes.
One of the most prominent images of a child in Avedon’s book is that of Sandra Bennett, a twelve year old from Rocky Ford, Colorado who was photographed in August, 1980. Bennett not only graces the cover of the book but her image became the representative of Avedon’s Western project since it was used most for publicity purposes. Her portrait was often the first seen upon entering the exhibitions of Avedon’s “In the American West.” In fact, Bennett’s face was taken as far as Filene’s department store in Boston, where she (unwittingly) advertised the new, Western look in a promotion entitled “Feeling Ready for the West.” Richard Bolton, a Boston critic, researched that advertising campaign and reported the thoughts of Charlotte Brewer, Filene’s vice president of marketing at the time. “(She) explained the promotion in this way: ‘The American West theme is an ideal attitudinal and visual concept to showcase today’s rugged, earthy denims and chambray with the soft sensuality of cotton petticoats and camisoles that reflect a spirit of early pioneering days…This fantasy with the American West is always with us, but surges every so often as a major fashion statement’.”11 The photograph of Bennett is one of the least controversial images in the book. Since her portrait was chosen to represent Avedon’s Western project on numerous occasions it should be further evaluated in order to understand Avedon’s approach.
Bennett is, first off, a female child at the brink of womanhood. Her clothes are still childish–overalls and a haltertop–and her lively, freckled skin recalls images of tomboys climbing trees. Her expression, however, is deeper than that. Her gaze is straightforward but exposed at the same time. Her eyes are beautifully shaped and light in color, and her dark lashes set off a contrast which is heightened by Avedon’s stark photographic method. Her lips pout slightly and while her hair is tousled at the top, it also falls into tidy ringlets on her left shoulder. Bolton commented that Bennett “speaks to one of (Filene’s) target audiences. Given Avedon’s approach, the young girl can be used to symbolize the unfashionable young woman, waiting to be transformed by the store.”12 Yet Bennett implies the transformation of another theme. She symbolizes vulnerability in the harsh realities of Avedon’s depicted West and this is perhaps why she was a successful marketing image. She represents a Cinderella on the brink of being saved. But she also stands on the edge of becoming one of Avedon’s Western women.
Avedon’s women, like his men, have been affected by the land in which they live. Their portraits can be grouped into categories. One is a group of represented women who are mothers or wives. Some are photographed with their children, others are with their husbands. Only one photograph shows a woman alone who is associated with this family theme, and she is pregnant. Emma Lee Wellington, a housewife from North Las Vegas, Nevada, was photographed in December of 1980. While pregnancy may be a joyous event for some women, Wellington does not demonstrate any of that emotion. Her shirt is adorned with an emblem of a stork carrying a baby and a caption that says “Yes I am!” proudly, and she wears a diamond ring, yet Wellington’s expression betrays her fear and worry. Her forehead is wrinkled, her eyes are shadowed by her furrowed eyebrows and her mouth is set with its corners turned downward. Her diamond-decorated hand rests on her bulging middle, encircling it and protecting it. Her other arm is folded awkwardly behind her back. The contrasts in this photograph are vivid. The assumed positive aspects are seen in the “Yes I Am” emblem and in the diamond ring on her finger. However, Wellington’s distressed visage upsets the should-be-happy picture. The anxiety in her face is compounded by the poor quality of her clothing. This is an image of the bearer of civilization going barren. She may be pregnant, but she is not secure in her role as mother-to-be.
Another type of woman Avedon portrays is the doll or temptress. This is an image where Avedon’s concentration on surface works well because he is depicting a staged vacuousness. Carol Crittendon, a bartender from Butte, Montana was photographed in July, 1981. She has falsely dyed blonde hair, excessive eye makeup, painted-in eyebrows and a fading tan line. The arrowhead necklace she wears is a cheap token of an Indian motif and that cheap qualiy exists in her clothing as well. Her outfit does not quite fit. Her pants are too tight and transparent; her tube top shows off the irregularity and color of her breasts. Everything about Crittendon looks artificial and imposed; there seems to be nothing natural about this woman. Her expression reveals an emotion that could almost be construed as pain–she squints at the camera with her overly mascaraed eyes. Crittendon is neither a mother figure nor a fashion statement about the West. She is as quaint and stereotypical as the narrative about the rattlesnake roundup. Many of the other women portrayed in Avedon’s book fit in somewhere between Crittendon, Wellington and Bennett. They are either teenagers who look like they will soon be mothers, young or old women who are painted from their faces down to their clothing, or tough broads who have spent time riding Harley Davidson motorcycles or in prison. The depictions of the latter carry more of the traits of the tough looking men that Avedon photographed.
A last category which is particularly prominent in In the American West is that of the freak. This category is not necessarily related to the mutilation theme discussed earlier, although both suggest the West as an altering force be it physical, mental or spiritual. Avedon’s freaks range from the tame to the outlandish. Some of them are freaks simply because they are unusual in light of the rest of the book. One of these is that of Emory J. Stovall, a scientist from Los Alamos, New Mexico who was photographed in June, 1979. Stovall is one of two characters who has what might be considered a professional position in relation to the drifters, carneys, waiters and other blue-collar jobs listed in the book. A closer look at his portrait reveals more about him as a curiosity. Numerous elements in the photo point to Stovall as the quintessential nerd scientist. He wears a striped shirt with plaid pants which are hiked up well over his stomach. One imagines that they do not cover his ankles. He carries two briefcases, one in each hand. His identification badge is plainly visible and his pens and glasses are neatly arranged in and clipped to his front shirt pocket. Stovall stares vacantly forward and his mouth is pulled tight into a frown. His face, and especially his chin, is wrinkled and spotted by the sun. About the only thing that is distinctly Western about Stovall is his bolo tie, which is an example of Western chic which contradicts his outdated mode of dress.
Ronald Fischer, a beekeeper from Davis California, was photographed in May, 1981 (Plate 16). The portrait evidently involved more set up than many of the others might have because Fischer is partially covered with bees and some of them are crawling in his ear.
While Stovall is a freak compared to the other images of the book, another depicts a character who would be perceived as bizarre on any occasion. Ronald Fischer, a beekeeper from Davis California, was photographed in May, 1981 (Plate 16). The portrait evidently involved more set up than many of the others might have because Fischer is partially covered with bees and some of them are crawling in his ear. Fischer calls to mind the portraits of Diane Arbus, a contemporary photographer who depicted the hermaphrodites, fat ladies, midgets and tattoo men peculiar to the carnival world. Avedon portrays a bald (and otherwise hairless) albino with stretchmarks on his stomach. Set against the white background, this overly white man is distinguished most by the pattern of dark bees that crawls on his skin. Like the Arbus images, this is at once a revolting and intriguing photograph. Fischer is a curiosity, but he is also one to be kept at a distance. Fischer’s expression compounds the effect of his portrait because he seems to be in a trance. His eyes are glassy and unfocused and there is little sense of character in his face. In this case, Fischer’s face is less the basis for any narrative about his portrait than is the entire eccentricity of the photograph and the elements which comprise it.
From these analysis of Avedon’s portraits of deformed Westerners, Western types, women and children in the West and Western freaks, it is apparent that Avedon’s West is his own compilation of images which carry his particular message. As his assistant wrote, “he searched for what he wanted to see and his choices were completely subjective.”13 While the photographs themselves supply ample evidence as to what Avedon wanted to demonstrate, they also leave a good deal of room for criticism. His Western work falls in the context of previous Western myths and other efforts to depict the character of the West. While these visualizations were often fictional, the format of Avedon’s work crosses the line between documentary work and fictional narrative. Additionally, while Avedon distinguished this work from his commercial efforts by exhibiting it in galleries and museums, there are many similarities between the two veins of production. Avedon’s intentions in this body of work are controversial and he does not supply any answers. The most he offered verbally about the photographs was that: “the structure of the project was clear to me almost from the start and each new portrait had to find its place in that structure. As the work progressed, the portraits themselves began to reveal connections of all kinds–psychological, sociological, physical, familial–among people who had never met.”14 Most critics who reviewed his exhibitions or the book had few good things to say about Avedon’s efforts. The criticism touched on numerous issues, some of which I will outline here.
Fact or Fiction?
The title of the book, the narrative in it, and some of Avedon’s comments support its fictional character. It was not titled “The American West” but In the American West. This legitimates the book as Avedon’s version of a part of the West and some people who live there. Additionally, the narrative in the book resembles a travel log. It does not tell us stories about the harsh realities of life in the West but it recounts the path of the project and some memorable experiences. The narrative does not echo the harshness of Avedon’s images, but is much more entertaining. Avedon’s own statments project the work as an invention: “this is a fictional West,” Avedon said, “I don’t think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne.”15 Yet a number of factors suggest that Avedon’s outlook was broader and that he wants these photographs to represent a certain kind of truth.
While representation has always been colored by the hand and eye of an artist, the notion of documentary intent is still valuable because it can be considered an evaluative measure. Avedon’s work does have a documentary bent. First, his project was financed by an institution which collects the work of artists who have created images of both imagined and real Wests. Second, he demonstrates that he is aware of his predecessors and of the plethora of Western myths that have surrounded (and continue to surround) the West’s inhabitants. His reaction is to invert them, but he did not approach the his Western work blindly. And third, Avedon places captions below his subjects which lend them and their appearance a certain truth value. This technique was used by the German documentary photographer, August Sander, who set out in the 1900’s to depict the ‘ordinary’ Germans who nobody ever recognized (Plates 19, 20). This mixture of fiction and fact in Avedon’s work renders it less powerful. While Avedon may have believed that the photographs carry enough weight on their own, their message is unclear. His documentary tendencies are watered down and his fiction becomes less fantastic.
The Style Factor
Regardless of whether the photographs are fact or fiction, they serve as Avedon’s vehicle for communication about the West and its inhabitants. The style of each photograph determines the relationship of an audience to the depicted subject. Avedon’s stylistic format also confuses the issue of how he wants his subjects to be perceived. Avedon has chosen to depict a group of people who have endured hardship and pain in the West. Ordinarily, these types of subjects would elicit sympathy from a viewer. Avedon was probably talking about this kind of reaction when he said that “here, I have a lot of strong feelings for these people.”16 Yet the photographs do not engender a sympathetic response and do not demonstrate that Avedon had one. By removing his subjects from their contexts, Avedon created a set of Western specimens. Set against a blank background, they look as if they are in a petri dish while we look through the microscope. Avedon coaxed them to strike a certain pose, took away the effect of natural light which softens facial features, used a type of camera which made their skin into a surface of textures, and placed a black frame around them, creating a rigid border imprisonment. All of these factors contribute to their dehumanization. One critic commented:
“Avedon floats people in a white void, compelling us to focus on costume and prop, expression and pose. Torn from their natural context, his subjects become like specimens examined by a visiting scientist. Their eyes and expressions are dead, like those of the slaughtered animals; it is as if they do not have real lives, interests, loved ones; there is no world they come out of or return to. The blank background emphasizes the sense of alienation…they seem so remote, so objectified, that the result is emotionally chilling.”17
Avedon may have had strong feelings and he may have intended his audience to share them, but none of them appear to be anything but condescending and constructed.
The stylistic factors which are at play in Avedon’s In the American West have been used in most of Avedon’s photography, whether or not he distinguished it as art or commercial work. Avedon himself said “if you see this exhibit (of Western photographs), you’ll see what an Avedon portrait looks like.”18 Avedon wanted this body of work to reflect his personal style so much that it overshadowed the destitute realities of many of his subjects. In the end, the portraits look strained and composed in order to effect a psychological reaction which signals the Avedon signature. This is essentially the affect of a good advertisement or magazine image. As one critic wrote: “for all their harshness, the grim blood-and guts ‘reality’ in the work, it is without that power to deeply disturb. It is the difference between art and fashion.”19
In the tradition of many visual artists who set out to depict characteristics of the American West, Richard Avedon is an upper-class Easterner who went to the West with preconceived notions about what he would (or wanted to) find there. Unlike Edward Curtis, who spent a large portion of his life living among the Indians, Richard Avedon was not involved in the lifestyles of his subjects. They were only known to him for short periods of time–essentially the time it took him to photograph them. If he had compassion for them, it appears to have been a learned compassion, because he provides his viewers with little chance to identify with his subjects.
Avedon’s In the American West is more about Avedon than about his sitters. While he inverts previous Western myths to demonstrate how the American Dream has gone sour, he does so in an overly stylized and unbelievable manner. While he responds to precedents like Edward Curtis by using the same type of camera Curtis used, or August Sander by using the documentary caption, or Diane Arbus by including freak photos, Avedon only superficially responds to their efforts. Curtis, Sander and Arbus all wanted to discover and share types of people who have been misunderstood, ignored or exiled. Avedon first had to create a category of Westerners to unveil. The Curtises, Sanders and Arbuses created a context in which Avedon’s portraits could claim importance. While Avedon attempted to present his subjects in a void so that they could tell their own story, his stylistic manipulations told the story for them. Avedon framed them, shot them and showed them so that he had the ultimate power in deciding what the photographs could say.
This is not new to the field of photography or of any visual representation. The maker usually makes with the intention of sending a message. It is only because Avedon’s messages are so blended together that they fail to communicate effectively, belittling the myths and the efforts of artists who preceded him as well as the lives of his subjects. As Susan Sontag wrote: “It is obviously too easy to say that America is just a freak show, a wasteland–the cut-rate pessimism typical of the reduction of the real to the surreal. But the American partiality to myths of redemption and damnation remains one of the most energizing, most seductive aspects of our national cuture. What we have left of Whitman’s discredited dream of cultural revolution are paper ghosts and a sharp-eyed witty program of despair.”20 It seems to me that Richard Avedon has fallen prey to this condition. His Western project was an immense media event and it was very well organized and publicized.
1. Henry Nash Smith. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 37.
2. I was not able to access Curtis’ The North American Indian. Instead, the images I studied were taken from Edward S. Curtis. Portraits from North American Indian Life (New York: Outerbridge and Lazard, Inc., 1972). While “Portraits” does not contain the original photogravure plates, the reproductions were quite good.
3. Curtis. Portraits from North American Indian Life, ix.
4. The format of the images in the book differs substantially from that of the images in exhibition contexts. For gallery or museum viewings, the photographs were backed with metal and enlarged to over life-size.
5. Richard Avedon. In the American West (New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985), foreword.
8. Richard Bolton, “In the American East: Avedon Incorporated,” AfterImage (Vol. 15, September, 1987), 16.
9. Max Kozloff, “Through Eastern Eyes,” Art In America (Vol. 75, No. 1, January, 1987), 91.
10. Avedon. In the American West, background.
11. Bolton, “In the American East: Avedon Incorporated,” 16.
13. Avedon. In the American West, background.
14. Ibid., foreword.
15. Ibid., background.
16. Robert Atkins, “Frontier: On Richard Avedon’s Vision of the American West,” Arts (Vol. 60, No. 8, April, 1986), 61.
17. Susan Weiley, “Avedon Goes West,” ArtNews (Vol. 85, No. 3, March, 1986), 90.
18. Bolton, “In the American East: Avedon Incorporated,” 16.
19. Weiley, “Avedon Goes West,” 91.
20. Susan Sontag. On Photography (New York: Anchor Books, 1973), 48.
1. Adams, Robert. From the Missouri West. New York: Aperture, Inc., 1980.
2. Aperture, Inc. Diane Arbus. New York: Aperture, Inc., 1972.
3. Aperture, Inc. Diane Arbus Magazine Work. New York: Aperture, Inc., 1984.
4. Ashton, Dore. This Silent Theater: The Portrait Photographs of Richard Avedon’s In The American West,” in Arts, Vol. 60, No. 1 (September, 1985), 136-144.
5. Atkins, Robert. “Frontier: On Richard Avedon’s Vision of the American West,” in Arts, Vol. 60, No. 8 (April, 1986), 60-61.
6. Avedon, Richard. In the American West. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc., 1985.
7. Avedon, Richard. Nothing Personal. New York: Atheneum Publishers, 1964.
8. Boesen, Victor and Graybill, Florence Curtis. Edward S. Curtis: Photographer of the North American Indian. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1977.
9. Boesen, Victor and Graybill, Florence Curtis. Edward Sheriff Curtis: Visions of a Vanishing Race. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1976.
10. Bolton, Richard. “In the American East: Avedon Incorporated,” in AfterImage, Vol. 15 (September,1987), 12-17.
11. Bosworth, Patricia. Diane Arbus: A Biography. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1984.
12. Brown, Dean. Photographs of the American Wilderness. New York: American Photographic Book Publishing Co., Inc., 1976.
13. Cohrs, Timothy. “Richard Avedon,” in Arts, Vol. 60, No. 7 (March, 1986), 140.
14. Curtis, Edward S. In The Land of the Head Hunters. New York: World Book Co., 1915.
15. Curtis, Edward S. Portraits from North American Indian Life. New York: Outerbridge and Lazard, Inc., 1972.
16. Goetzmann, William H. and Goetzmann, William N. The West of the Imagination. New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1986.
17. Holm, Bill and Quimby, George Irving. Edward S. Curtis in the Land of the War Canoes. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1980.
18. Jussim, Estelle and Lindquist-Cock, Elizabeth. Landscapes as Photograph. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.
19. Karmel, Pepe. “Richard Avedon at Pace and Pace/MacGill,” in Art in America, Vol. 74, No. 4 (April, 1986), 195-196.
20. Keller, Ulrich. August Sander, Menschen des 20. Jahrhunderts: Portraitphotographien 1892- 1952. München: Schirmer / Mosel, 1980.
21. Kozloff, Max. “Through Eastern Eyes,” in Art in America, Vol. 75, No. 1 (January, 1987), 90-97.
22. Lartigue, Jacques Henri. Diary of a Century. New York: The Viking Press, 1970.
23. Lyman, Christopher M. The Vanishing Race and Other Illusions: Photographs of Indians by Edward S. Curtis. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1982.
24. Palmquist, Peter E. Carleton E. Watkins: Photographer of the American West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1983.
25. Smith, Henry Nash. Virgin Land: The American West as Symbol and Myth. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
26. Stange, Maren. Symbols of Ideal Life: Social Documentary Photography in America 1890- 1950. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989.
27. Sontag, Susan. On Photography. New York: Anchor Books, 1973.
28. Stroud, David. “On Avedon’s West,” (Letter to the Editor) in Art in America, Vol. 75, No. 11(March, 1987), 11.
29. Szarkowski, John. American Landscapes. New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1981.
30. Tagg, John. The Burden of Representation. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1988.
31. Weiley, Susan. “Avedon Goes West,” in ArtNews, Vol. 85, No. 3 (March, 1986), 86-91.
BOOKS: Richard Avedon
ASX CHANNEL: Richard Avedon
For inquiries, please contact American Suburb X at: [email protected].
(© Samantha Krukowski, 1990. All rights reserved. All images © copyright the photographer and/or publisher)