This is a fictional West. I don’t think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne.—Richard Avedon
In the spring of 1979 Richard Avedon came to Texas and began to make a sequence of portraits. He did not stop in Highland Park or River Oaks, to revisit any of the clothes he had photographed for fashion magazines over the years, but went instead to the Sweetwater Jaycees’ Rattlesnake Round-up, where he took a picture of a young man named Boyd Fortin holding a gutted diamondback.
For the next five and a half years, in the summers particularly, Avedon returned to the West. He visited truck stops, rodeos, ranches, mines, and stockyards. He made two remarkable portraits in the San Antonio jail, two more in a mental hospital in New Mexico, several in a Hutterite community in Montana, and four—of extraordinary power—in slaughterhouses. He photographed miners, drifters, cowhands, roughnecks, couples, teenagers, old folks, and many, many people who would probably be content to be described as just folks.
By late October 1984 he had traveled in seventeen states, photographed 752 people, and created, very much on his own terms, his fictional West. All his Westerners were shot against a sheet of white paper and in natural light because Avedon wanted the “source of light to be invisible so as to neutralize its role in the appearance of things.” Whether such lighting plays a neutral role may be questioned, but certainly it is consistent, as the Western sun is not; if a fiction is being made, then the fictionist, whether writer or photographer, has a right to the style of his choice.
Avedon stood beside the camera, close to the person or persons being photographed, seeing them but not the image the camera was about to give him. In a lucid and interesting introduction to In the American West, the soon-to-be-published book of these portraits, he has this to say about the highly specialized involvement of photographer and subject: “A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is me, must be discovered in someone willing to become implicated in a fiction he cannot possibly know about. My concerns are not his. We have separate ambitions for the image. His need to plead his case probably goes as deep as my need to plead mine, but the control is with me.
“A portrait is not a likeness; The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph, it is no longer fact but opinion.”
It is important to read Avedon on his own method and theory in order to appreciate fully what a deliberated achievement the Western portraits are. Seven hundred and fifty-two Westerners were selected from the many thousands Avedon and his staff observed during those five and a half years; of those roughly a tenth yielded images that answered the needs of the fiction the artist was producing.
The force and impact of this fiction—which is to say, these portraits—is great; crucial to the impact is the white background. Though there is plenty of precedent in photography for this strategy, it has rarely been applied in the American West. Avedon is no doubt well educated in the tradition he breaches, a tradition in which landscape has been overwhelmingly dominant. From Alexander Gardner and the railroad surveys through William Henry Jackson and Edward S. Curtis and more workaday pioneer photographers such as L. A. Huffman, the landscape is always there, dwarfing the people, as Western landscapes tend to. Curtis muted his landscapes, refusing to let them overwhelm his portraits, but few of his contemporaries were so skilled or so sensitive.
Avedon’s choice is a smart one, mainly because in photography dealing with the West, landscape has been dominant for so long that Western landscape has become trite. John Wayne’s West is one of the things that made it trite, though photography, as opposed to cinematography, has certainly helped.
The popularity of certain lyric pastoral images suggests that many people wish to retain a hopeful idealism when thinking about the West. If it has to have people in it at all, they should behave like John Wayne, Matt Dillon, or Miss Kitty; their backdrop, whenever possible, should be Monument Valley, a striking valley co be sure but one that for too long has been made to serve visually for the whole West, most of which doesn’t resemble it.
But there is a level of idealism that wants pure pastoral from photographers when they use the West; that idealism is so nostalgic that it seeks, essentially, an unpeopled West, and there have been plenty of gifted photographers to give it to them. Perhaps the power and beauty of the land at its cleanest call forth that need, in photographer and viewer alike. The photograph that answers the need best is undoubtedly Ansel Adams’ Moonrise, Hernandez, New Mexico, made in 1944. The people are there only by implication, in those little houses, in front of the dark mountains, and under the lovely moon.
In the American West is a complex work; it does many things, and one of the things it does is comment on that photograph. Avedon shows us the people who might be living in those little houses, beside those mountains, beneath chat moon. They are not idealized, and seldom beautiful.
Indeed, by his complete rejection of the pastoral as it is usually understood, Avedon comments on all photography using the American West. In a sense his work is an antipastoral. He banishes the landscape of seventeen states, some of which, as millions of photographs from the family-scrapbook level on up indicate, is as visually irresistible as any on the planet.
Yet Avedon resists it, rejects it. In his West the people are all that’s there. The landscape is what’s implied. We know it only through its effects, the marks it has left on people who must confront it every day. Some of these marks, made by wind and sun, are canyon deep and so similar as to seem ritualistic, tribal. These people all belong to the Tribe of the West and look the way they do because of too much wind and not enough shade.
When I first looked at these portraits, the book they called to mind was Claude Lévi-Strauss’s early masterpiece, Tristes Tropiques (The Sad Tropics). Avedon’s book could just as accurately be called The Sad West. The pictures show people who have been brutalized by a land almost too powerful to live on. The land may be shown only by implication, but the implication is that it’s cruel and the struggle for survival on it still intense. Civilization—with all its niceties—waits.
Among its niceties are the fashion magazines for which Richard Avedon has worked so successfully and inventively. It was he who photographed Nastassja Kinski draped in a snake. Would the photograph have happened if he had not attended the Jaycees’ rattlesnake round-up and seen the children of Sweetwater handling decapitated rattlers as if they were fettuccine?
In this work his capacity for the exotic is restrained by the nature of the fiction; it surfaces only in a wonderful photograph of a beekeeper in Davis, California—a picture to make Robert Mapplethorpe eat his heart out.
Beauty has its own brutality, as Richard Avedon must know as well as anyone. That is true of Western landscape and frequently true of beautiful humans, whether Western or not. It is interesting that a man who has worked so long at fashion photography would be led now, as he has been in the past, to photograph so many people whose contact with fashion is practically nonexistent. Was it one too many sessions with Brooke Shields that prompted his visit to that San Antonio jail or the hospital in New Mexico or the slaughterhouse in Amarillo?
Whatever prompted them, the pictures provide a strong, complex, and variably fascinating set of comments on the photographer, photography, and the hard life of the American West. Instead of romantic images of the vanishing cowboy—we’ve had at least four books filled with those recently—Avedon gives us the skinned heads of two steers and three sheep, a succinct comment on the Western livestock industry.
It would be interesting to know how many of his subjects—just folks, except for the criminals and the crazies—would now consider that they made a good bargain when they stepped up to do something that turned out to be a good deal more complicated than just getting their pictures snapped. Will they like the fiction they allowed themselves to become implicated in? Avedon’s ambitions for these images easily prevailed; if the subjects were pleading a case for their view of their lives, they lost it.
Many of them will probably never see this fiction, but if they do, my guess is they will be startled by the sadness in it. The emotion most often captured in these portraits is disappointment; the West that caught these peoples’ hearts also stole their dreams. Disappointment is there even in the youngest people photographed. It is as if they sense that a promise will soon be broken, that life will never be for them as advertised in People magazine, in the Marlboro ads, on TV.
As for life as advertised in Vogue, well, that is a world away. The man who has shown us a life that is all ornament now shows us one that is without ornament and full of holes to boot. His famous subject Marianne Moore once wrote that poetry’s duty was to give us “imaginary gardens with real toads in them.” In Avedon’s portraits the imaginary garden that has been the West for so long finally vanishes. What remains is—in a sense—imaginary people with real holes in them. Avedon’s art at its finest makes the holes seem like ornaments.
Richard Avedon’s book In the American West is from a project commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum and will be published this month by Harry N. Abrams. Larry McMurtry’s latest book is Lonesome Dove, published by Simon and Schuster.