Artist of the Portrait
For six years, from 1979 to 1984, I worked with Richard Avedon on "In the American West," his landmark series of photographs (twenty of which were published in these pages in September 1985). From Central Texas to the Sierra Nevada, from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border, we searched out subjects who were, in his words, "beautiful in a heartrending way." As he worked toward making his portraits, I focused my camera on him. Here, from my new book, Avedon at Work: In the American West, are some of the people he found compelling and my record of what was going on outside the frame.
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Due to copyright restrictions we are unable to publish these photographs on the web. See them in the November 2003 print issue of Texas Monthly.
AVEDON WAS SITTING in my kitchen one afternoon when Andrew, my oldest son, came in from school talking excitedly about a man who had come to his class that day wearing a beard of live bees. Avedon was amazed. He immediately wanted to know how he could see a man covered with bees. The school suggested that we put a notice in a beekeepers journal asking anyone willing to be photographed with bees on his body to send us a snapshot. In the days that followed, about forty unremarkable pictures came in the mail. And then a Polaroid arrived of a man with an extraordinary face. A note was attached: “I probably don’t look right for what you want, but I would like to do it.” The note was signed “Ronald Fischer.” When Avedon first looked at the Polaroid, he immediately saw the possibilities of this portrait. “He was a gift,” he said. “I don’t know how to put it, but he had a quality so exceptional, so like a dream.”
An entomologist helped with the photograph. He took a dropper from a tiny bottle filled with pheromone fluid containing the queen bee’s scent and dabbed it onto Fischer’s chest. This scent both attracted the bees and prevented them from stinging him. In the first session, a thousand worker bees swarmed Fischer’s bare chest, arms, and head.
I think the portrait of the bee man makes it clear that, as much as all these portraits may appear to be moments that just occurred, they are, finally, in varying degrees, studied works of the imagination.
WE HAD BEEN DOWN in South Texas in Zavala County and had crossed the border briefly into Piedras Negras to photograph at Boys Town, La Zona de la Tolerancia, one of many communities of brothels along the border. Then we headed north, stopping in San Antonio early on a Monday morning. Not much was happening. We wandered into a tattoo parlor and were shooting the breeze with the owner, who was pleased to have company and the chance to talk about his craft. By chance, a policeman walked in and overheard our conversation. “If you really want to see great tattoos,” he said, “the real tattoo artists are in the Bexar County jail. You’re wasting your time here.”
We followed his advice and went to the county jail, where I spent most of the morning talking to various administrators to get permission to photograph the prisoners. Finally, the officer in charge agreed to take us from cell to cell. Through the bars, Avedon explained what he wanted, and the prisoners told us how they got their tattoos. They drew freehand on one another, then punctured their skin with sewing needles and rubbed in ink from Magic Markers. Most of them were Mexican Americans, and they liked tattoos with religious themes—the Virgin of Guadalupe, crowns of thorns, roses, Christ’s sorrowful head. The warden arranged for Avedon’s two assistants to set up the camera and white seamless paper on the exercise roof of the jail. Two of the prisoners were the same height; each had a scar on his stomach and a tattoo on his chest. To Avedon, they “looked like twins who’d never met, who had never known each other.”
THE BEGINNING of this project coincided with an oil boom in the West. In June 1980 we were heading back to Yukon, having just photographed oil-field workers on the rig that is visible through the windshield of the car, when we came across a man walking along Interstate 40 with his bedroll on his shoulders. We slowed down to get a closer look and ask him a few questions. He said his name was Bill Curry. Avedon asked to take his picture, and he got in the car. We drove a few miles to a cafe, where the assistants taped up the white paper.
While the camera was being set up, Curry and Avedon talked. Curry said he was always on the move; he never stayed in any town for long. At night he slept outside on the ground. “I can hear a blade of grass move,” he said. “I’m never completely asleep. I always keep a knife.” Avedon felt that Curry looked like a character out of a Eugene O’Neill play. Curry reminded him of Edmund Tyrone in Long Day’s Journey Into Night, who says to his father, “I will always be a stranger who never feels at home, who does not really want and is not really wanted, who can never belong, who must always be a little in love with death.”
IT WAS 107 DEGREES IN Sweetwater—hotter still by ten to twenty degrees inside the aging gypsum plant built half a century earlier. Jimmy Lopez had been at work since seven in the morning, lifting one-hundred-pound bags of gypsum plaster off packing machines and onto a hand truck. The air inside the plant was white with gypsum dust, and the noise of the machines was deafening.
During the portrait session, Avedon said very little, simply a word or two to encourage Lopez. The plant superintendent was pressed into service to shield the sheet film from the sun. Lopez, worn out from an eight-hour shift, concentrated with astonishing discipline. He clenched his fists and tried not to sway out of focus. It wasn’t until the end of the session, after Avedon thanked him, that he admitted to almost fainting from the sun’s glare, the hot wind, and the strangeness of the situation.
WHEN WE MET RICHARD WHEATCROFT, in 1981, he was 24 and ran the cattle ranch his grandfather had put together starting in 1914 with a homestead allotment of 320 free acres. His grandfather continued to buy land during the Depression and in times of drought from hard-up neighbors who couldn’t pay their back taxes. Some of the land was bought for as little as 25 cents an acre.
In 1978 Richard found his father crushed to death under a tractor, and the responsibility of running the 15,000-acre ranch near Jordan fell to him. Avedon photographed Richard four times over six years. His story deeply affected Avedon, so in the spring of 2003, just before his eightieth birthday, he and I returned to Montana. The rains had been heavy, and the unpaved roads leading to the Wheatcroft ranch were, for our rented car, impassable. We arranged to meet Richard at a cafe in Ingomar, a town of about fifteen buildings on the windswept plains of eastern Montana, and we had a long, poignant conversation that lasted through the afternoon. I took some pictures of Richard and Avedon. Then we said our good-byes and started the long drive back to the airport in Bozeman. Looking out the window of the car, Avedon said, “We come and we leave. We take our pictures and go. I feel we’re deserting him. I wish I’d never stopped photographing the people we met. I wish I could have stayed with the project my whole life.”