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How the West Was Shot

Behind the lens with photographer Laura Wilson.

By October 2015Comments

Wilson in Santa Fe County, New Mexico, last year.
Photograph by Matt Lankes

In 1979 a budding photographer in Dallas named Laura Wilson was hired by Richard Avedon, the famed New York fashion photographer, to work with him on an ambitious project to depict the people of the American West. For six summers, Wilson traveled through seventeen states in a Chevrolet Suburban with Avedon and two other assistants. “I was drawn to the landscape,” she says. “I loved the sparseness and the openness, and I found myself interested in the people there in a way I hadn’t expected.”

In 1985, not long after Avedon’s exhibition, “In the American West,” premiered to international acclaim at Fort Worth’s Amon Carter Museum of American Art, Wilson was back on the road again, this time to do her own photos, focusing on people who were, as she puts it, “living in their own particularly enclosed worlds, often far away from the social and cultural mainstream.”

Now, thirty years later, Wilson has her own major exhibition at the Amon Carter. “That Day,” which runs through February, is composed of 71 photographs (many originally published in such magazines as the New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Texas Monthly) and clearly establishes Wilson as one of the foremost visual chroniclers of the modern-day West. Her pictures capture gritty dogfighters positioning their pit bulls for battle, stone-faced border agents chasing down undocumented workers, hollow-eyed itinerant laborers living in threadbare tents, female trick riders performing at a rodeo, and teenage girls dressed in $30,000 gowns preparing for a debutante ball in Laredo. She has photographed cocky Navy fighter pilots at a base in a remote corner of Nevada, down-on-their-luck Native Americans at a South Dakota reservation, a six-man high school football team in West Texas, women who belong to the isolated Hutterite religious clan in Montana, and, of course, ranchers and working cowboys—the last symbols of the way the West used to be. In That Day: Pictures in the American West, a book of Wilson’s photos that Yale University Press and Southern Methodist University is putting out this month, Larry McMurtry writes, “Wilson has an ever-searching eye for the bleak beauty of the West—and for its bleak reality, too.”

That eye, though, is the eye of an outsider. Raised in a small town in Massachusetts, she studied art and literature at the Connecticut College for Women. In 1966 she moved to Dallas when her husband, Robert, whom she met when he was at Dartmouth, was hired to be president of the city’s public television and radio stations. She spent her time raising their three sons—Andrew, Owen, and Luke (all of whom have had their own success, in Hollywood)—and she frequently took their photographs. In the mid-seventies, she decided to pursue photography as a career and built a darkroom at the house. Then, through her husband, she met Avedon.

Right now, Wilson is working on two new projects. She’s putting together a book of portraits of world-renowned authors and a collection of photos she has taken on movie sets. And she is still wandering the West, looking for more people to shoot. “I live by a quote from Henry James: ‘Try to be one of the people on whom nothing is lost.’ ”

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