Avedon’s West

Avedon’s West

By Art Ponder

Vol. 9, No. 5, 1987, pp. 30-31

Richard Avedon is generally known as a fashion photographer, the man who creates the “idealized,” sexist icons for the covers of such magazines as Vogue and Self. Others may know him as a contributor to Rolling Stone or the photographer who turned his large format camera on the influential and powerful, making revealing portraits of numerous “movers and shakers,” George Wallace, Ronald Reagan and Jimmy Carter among the herd. His most recent effort, however, is in sharp contrast to those earlier identities. In “In The American West,” a traveling exhibition recently on view at the High Museum in Atlanta, he takes as his subject not Vogue stereotypes, but the dispossessed, the drifting, the working class, the “ordinary people” of an American region. He does so in such a way as to startle nearly any viewer, and, in the end, make an ambiguous comment about the West, a comment devoid of humanity and thirsting for understanding.

In 1979 Avedon began what developed into a five-year project, in which he attempted to, as he says in the foreword to his book In The American West, photograph “the men and women who work at hard, uncelebrated jobs, the people who are often ignored and overlooked.” Toward this end, Avedon roamed the West, visiting events and places such as county fairs, rodeos, coal mines, and slaughter houses, looking for faces and bodies that would serve his vision of the West. For Avedon, this is a process akin to auditioning actors for a play or film, though here potential actors have no idea they are under consideration. After selecting a person, he and his crew of three or four assistants would erect a piece of large white backdrop paper, always in the shade to give flat, even, light to all his photographs, and position the subject for his or her portrait. Using an 8×10 view camera, capable of rendering the most minute details with clarity, Avedon would make his picture. About these subjects and the subsequent results, Avedon has said: “These disciplines, these strategies, this silent theatre attempt to achieve an illusion: that everything embodied in the photography simply happened, that the person in the portrait was always there, was never encouraged to hide his hands, and in the end was not even in the presence of a photographer.”

Such could not be further from the truth, for all of Avedon’s pictures radiate with the presence of the photographer nearly as much as the subjects themselves. Like the portrait “Gordon Stevenson, drifter, Interstate 90, Butte, Montana, 8/25/79,n all of Avedon’s subjects float in negative white space, rooted to nothing but perhaps the edge of the frame, stripped of place and context, able to speak only through their physical appearance.

In Avedon’s view of the West no one is given the dignity to be viewed in their personal landscape. No one is seen in relation to place. For students of Southern culture, this resonates with exploitation, as Southerners have long been characterized as being dependent upon a relationship to place, or in Eudora Welty’s overused notion, to have “a sense of place.” Who would not look alienated, who would not look dispossessed when asked to stand rootless against seamless white paper? What would we think of Lewis Hine’s photograph of a young spinner in the Roanoke Cotton Mill if Hine pictured her in an empty white space rather than with the spinning machine she saw too much of? When pressed by critics concerned with the perceived exploitative approach, Avedon invariably hides behind the artist’s veil. In a recent interview for Atlanta Art Papers, he quipped: “…let’s assume that it’s correct that I take advantage of people. What has that got to do with the business of an artist? What difference does it make if I am a good or a bad man? We are talking about the works of art which will live long after I’m gone….But are the photographs true to the human condition? And has damage been done?” He asks his own question and his exhibition answers with a profound “yes,” when we understand that he is offering a misinformed, distorted and exploitative vision of an American region that, by the nature of its circulation and hype, influences the views and opinions of many.

ONE OBSERVER OF THE exhibition commented that “many look as though Avedon had stormed their homes and forced them up against the white seamless backdrop paper, their pants unbuttoned, hair disheveled, and their demeanor reflecting utter resignation before this master of control. Others seemed to have been dragged from their jobs…” (Spot, Fall 1985). Avedon, however, contends that with portraiture “the surface is all you’ve got. You can only get beyond the surface by working with the surface.” This leads him to abstract all his subjects in a white background. In Avedon’s portrait of the West there are no causes for dispossession and despair, simply dispossession and despair.

The show at the High Museum was sponsored in part by Rich’s, Atlanta’s large department store chain; shows in other cities were also underwritten by department stores, reflecting the high regard bestowed upon Avedon by the corporate fashion machine. At the grand gala opening in Atlanta, with Avedon in attendance, the museum patrons and art aficionados wandered amidst the larger-than-life portraits of drifters, miners and such, facing the working class of another region in a way they may never have observed folks of similar plight and occupation in the South. That Avedon’s work forces viewers, some reluctant ones, to look into the eyes of victims in America is one of the powerful triumphs of the exhibition. One Atlanta Journal-Constitution writer overheard a shocked Atlanta matron responding to the show: “I know Jesus says you are supposed to love everyone, but I just can’t. I just can’t. I can’t love dirty people or fat people.”

A VIEW OF THE AVEDON show (or the book) is like viewing the collection of a well-traveled entomologist; we see many types, all recorded by the collector in a similar fashion, but we know nothing of any of them except their name and where they were found. Like a collection of insects, Avedon’s collection of faces and occupations from the West are clear, sharp and well-presented, but without the slightest bit of humanity. In a public lecture in Boston earlier this year, he explained his right to photograph people however he wants: “To say it in the toughest way possible, and the most unpleasant way, what rights do Cezanne’s apples have to tell Cezanne how to paint them.” Avedon knows no difference between the inanimate and the animate. Years of fashion photography have conditioned him to only be interested in the surface and the form, but not the person or the life. In an Avedon session, he and the camera are the animate forms and whoever the subject–factory worker, drifter, rancher–are inanimate forms to be directed, arranged, and “framed” by the heavy black lines of his large film format. Most tragically, his subjects are silenced. Richard Bolton, a critic and an artist in Boston, reflects on Avedon with sharp criticism: “His approach is reminiscent of police photography–in the police photograph, one cannot help but look like a criminal; the format itself communicates guilt.”

Countless viewers of the Avedon show, unaware of exactly how they feel about his work, offer such gut reactions as “powerful,” “moving,” and “disturbing.” The power of Avedon’s work rests with the ability of these large, voyeuristic images to awake horrors in the minds and hearts of viewers. Not unlike the tabloid report of human suffering or catastrophe, Avedon’s work provokes shock and horror. The real tragedy, however, is that the provocation is an end in itself, and his approach never gets beyond the surface he holds so dear, generating not the least bit of understanding. Devoid of understanding and compassion, his subjects are left to drift helplessly and silently, with no voice to offer us their sagas of life and work.

Art Ponder is a drifter and a sometimes contributor to Southern Changes who is currently stationed in Atlanta.