Magazine article USA TODAY

Deromanticizing the West: The Portraits of Richard Avedon

Magazine article USA TODAY

Deromanticizing the West: The Portraits of Richard Avedon

Article excerpt

Assertive, controversial, and graphically striking, the portraits on view in the exhibition, "In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon," have generated extensive and, at times, heated discussion about the nature of portraiture, photography, and the true identity of the American West. Avedon's oversize portraits of working class Westerners have become icons in photographic history.

"The extraordinary images by Avedon for this project have become justifiably famous," says Rick Stewart, director of the Amon Carter Museum, Ft. Worth, Tex. "Seeing them in reproduction is not enough; you have to confront them directly, on the walls, to realize their overwhelming power and exquisite quality."

From 1979-84, Avedon traveled through 13 states and 189 towns from Texas to Idaho, conducting 752 sittings and exposing 17,000 sheets of film through his 8" x 10" Deardorff view camera. Focusing on the rural West, Avedon visited ranches and rodeos, but he also went to truck stops, oil fields, and slaughterhouses. Rather than playing to the western myths of grandeur and space, he sought out people whose appearance and life circumstances were the antithesis of mythical images of the ruggedly handsome cowboy, beautiful pioneer wife, dashing outdoor adventurer, or industry mogul. The subjects he chose for the portraits were more ordinary people, coping daily with personal cycles of boom and bust.

Instead of glamorizing these figures, he brought their various human frailties to the forefront. All of them were pictured against a seamless white backdrop that removed any reference to place, and many of the portraits were dramatically oversized, shocking in their stark detail. Visitors to the exhibition come face-to-face with images that shattered stereotypes of a glorified region.

Although small groups of prints from "In the American West" have been exhibited periodically, a large portion of them has not been seen in the U.S. since the initial 1984 tour. However, 78 of the original 124 portraits now are on view, including all of the most important and best-known images.

"These large photographs are as vivid, compelling, and challenging today as they were 20 years ago," maintains John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs at the Amon Carter Museum. …

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