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Avedon at Work

Avedon at Work
In the American West
Foreword by Larry McMurtry

How Avedon created his famous work.

Series: Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center Imprint

January 2003
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132 pages | 9 x 11 | 110 duotones |

Internationally acclaimed for his portraits of powerful and accomplished people and women of great beauty, Richard Avedon was one of the twentieth century's greatest photographers—but perhaps not the most obvious choice to create a portrait of ordinary people of the American West. Yet in 1979, the Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth, Texas, daringly commissioned him to do just that.

The resulting 1985 exhibition and book, In the American West, was a milestone in American photography and Avedon's most important body of work. His unflinching portraits of oilfield and slaughterhouse workers, miners, waitresses, drifters, mental patients, teenagers, and others captured the unknown and often-ignored people who work at hard, uncelebrated jobs. Making no apologies for shattering stereotypes of the West and Westerners, Avedon said, "I'm looking for a new definition of a photographic portrait. I'm looking for people who are surprising—heartbreaking—or beautiful in a terrifying way. Beauty that might scare you to death until you acknowledge it as part of yourself."

Photographer Laura Wilson worked with Avedon during the six years he was making In the American West. In Avedon at Work, she presents a unique photographic record of his creation of this masterwork—the first time a major photographer has been documented in great depth over an extended period of time. She combines images she made during the photographic sessions with entries from her journal to show Avedon's working methods, his choice of subjects, his creative process, and even his experiments and failures. Also included are a number of Avedon's finished portraits, as well as his own comments and letters from some of the subjects.

Avedon at Work adds a new dimension to our understanding of one of the twentieth century's most significant series of portraits. For everyone interested in the creative process it confirms that, in Laura Wilson's words, "much as all these photographs may appear to be moments that just occurred, they are finally, in varying degrees, works of the imagination."

  • Foreword by Larry McMurtry
  • Acknowledgments
  • Avedon at Work

Laura Wilson is a photographer whose previous books are Hutterites of Montana and Watt Matthews of Lambshead. Her work has also appeared in the New York Times Magazine, the New Yorker, the Washington Post Magazine, and London's Sunday Times Magazine. She lives in Dallas.


Richard Avedon was fifty-five years old in October of 1978 and at the top of his game. He had spent his life photographing people of power, people of accomplishment, and women of great beauty: Presidents Eisenhower, Kennedy, Ford, and Carter. Samuel Beckett, Bob Dylan, Marella Agnelli. The Mission Council in Saigon. The Chicago Seven. Four major exhibitions in eight years had now culminated in a retrospective of his fashion work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. "An Avedon portrait" had become a standard phrase in the art world's vernacular. His most unflinching work had placed him in the pantheon of the twentieth century's greatest photographers. Except for trips to various photographic locations, most of his life had been spent within a thirty-block radius of his studio on the Upper East Side of New York City. But only a month after his opening at the Metropolitan, he would begin to consider a new project that would take him into the American West.


It started with a phone call from Fort Worth, which is, as Texans say, where the West begins. Mitch Wilder, a photographer himself, was the innovative director of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth. He had elevated the collection of Western art beyond the Remingtons and Russells so favored by the museum's original benefactor, Amon Carter. Mitch liked the unexpected. Among his many acquisitions was a beautiful little painting by Pierre Bonnard. The painter had seen Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West Show when it came to Paris in 1895 and had painted two Indians galloping bareback on their ponies. Also in the collection, tucked amid the Catlins and the Bodmers, was a shadow box containing the actual upper lip and moustache of George Witherell, who was hanged in Cañon City, Colorado, in 1888.


The week after the Avedon show opened at the Metropolitan, my husband, Bob Wilson, then an advisor to the Amon Carter Museum, called Mitch to discuss ideas. Wilder said, in jest, "Oh, I thought you were calling to tell me Richard Avedon wants to do a show with the Amon Carter Museum." Avedon had just appeared on the cover of Newsweek--the first photographer ever to appear on the cover of a national newsmagazine. After a pause, Bob said, "Mitch, that's a great idea." They immediately called Avedon and arranged a meeting in New York. At that meeting, Wilder talked of the tradition of Easterners going west to describe what they saw for city dwellers back home and for Europeans across the Atlantic. Painters like Alfred Bierstadt and Thomas Moran went west in the mid-1800's with geological surveys and showed the natural grandeur of the frontier. Their paintings contributed to the young nation's self-confidence and helped forge a sense of national identity. During that first meeting with Avedon, Wilson suggested that the project focus on women of the West. Avedon asked if the project had to be just women. Couldn't it include men? "Sure it could," Wilder said. The meeting ended with the men agreeing to think about the project and how it might take shape.


Avedon was ready to go forward. He had spent almost forty years photographing people close to his own world in New York City: creative people, people from the worlds of fashion, theater, and the arts. He was ready to take time out from the responsibilities of a demanding studio. Although he had worked in the South during the civil rights movement and in Vietnam during the antiwar movement, he was eager to complete his unfinished portrait of America. He knew that to broaden this portrait he needed to look at a whole different segment of society. He sensed that one of the great hidden strengths of the nation came not so much from either coast but from the country's interior and its hardworking, uncelebrated people.


Wilder offered Avedon financial backing to go west. Never before had a museum commissioned an artist to create a body of work to be exhibited six years in the future. Wilder was taking a chance. Avedon warned him that he wasn't going to glorify the West. "I can't guarantee what I'll find," he said, "but you know my vision's not a romantic one. You know my work. You've looked at my portraits." Wilder accepted the challenge. He was entrepreneurial in his thinking and, most important of all, he had great instincts. Right away, he had liked Avedon, and he liked the idea of a new perspective on the West. A deal was struck. In the weeks that followed, Avedon began to shape what would become the most significant series of portraits in a lifetime devoted to photography.


I first met Richard Avedon during a planning session with Mitch Wilder when my husband, knowing that Avedon and the museum would need a researcher to uncover photographic possibilities, introduced us. Bob and I lived in Dallas with our three young sons. I had been photographing the boys as they were growing up, taking pictures of the fun and exuberance of brothers: pictures of Andrew, the oldest, diving off the roof of a summer house into Lake Sunapee in New Hampshire, pictures of all three--Luke, Owen, and Andrew--in inner tubes in the swirling currents of the Guadalupe River in the Texas Hill Country. I loved the work of Jacques Henri Lartigue and the great photojournalists Robert Capa, David Douglas Duncan, Eugene Smith, and, of course, Henri Cartier Bresson.


In preparation for my first meeting with Avedon, I looked through, as I had so often before, the four existing books devoted to his photography. The scope and magnitude of his work overwhelmed me. I was unsure if I had the experience for the job. But during this first session the strength of Avedon's personality soon drew me into his gravitational field, as it did most people who met him. He was 5'7", alert, buoyant, inquisitive, and full of visceral intelligence. Large, dark eyes dominated his face and made his black-rimmed glasses seem insignificant. He had thick gunmetal-gray hair, olive skin, and a restless, nervous energy that made him seem a decade younger than he was. What distinguished him in person was the focus and intensity he brought to a conversation. His observations were disarming, and he was quick in the extreme to respond to those around him. And I remember his conspiratorial approach. He would make a side comment or witty remark, or just give a glance to draw you closer. This, I learned later, defined him. He had an acute ability to connect: he knew intuitively the nature of a person and could sense both what a person wanted known and what withheld.


In spite of securing the Amon Carter Museum's support, in the initial weeks of planning the project Avedon wasn't sure he could make a go of it. In his contract, he had maintained the right to withdraw all the photographs if by his own standards the work failed to measure up. He proposed a trial run, a test shoot, in March of 1979. He flew from New York to Dallas, where we met and drove 205 miles to Sweetwater, Texas, for the Rattlesnake Roundup. This annual event, organized to rid the rangeland of snakes, sent farmers and ranchers, railroad clerks, and kids out into the countryside to flush snakes out of their dens in the rocky ledges of the Callahan Divide country of West Texas. The Jaycees sponsored the roundup, paying four dollars per pound per snake. Most years the hunters brought in about seven thousand pounds. But the rattlesnakes had to be alive--a dead snake is hard to skin and the meat spoils. Handlers milked the snakes for their venom, which is used in medical research. The Jaycees Wives Club cut them up and deep-fried them. The rattlesnake skins and carcasses were made into lively curios: paperweights and beer mugs, earrings and hatbands.


We wandered among the crowd looking for people to photograph. Two camera assistants from New York had come with us. They taped a nine-by-twelve-foot piece of white seamless paper to the shady side of the Sweetwater Coliseum and placed the camera on a tripod while passersby watched. Avedon used a large view camera, a Deardorf, similar to the cameras used by photographers a century before. Eight-by-ten-inch sheets of film were inserted one at a time into the back of the camera. The negative produced an image of unsurpassed sharpness, which in turn yielded a print of exceptional detail. To focus, Avedon stepped under a black cloth; the image appeared upside down and backward on the ground glass. But once focused, he was free to move to the front of the camera to face his subject directly. Nothing was between them. This permitted him the intimacy of eye-to-eye contact, which would not have been possible if he was holding a camera up to his face. Because he wasn't actually looking through the lens, he had to imagine the picture he was taking. Only through experience was he able to sense what he had actually photographed; he couldn't really know until a print was made.


Avedon photographed with an intensity that precluded everything but the work at hand. With one assistant loading sheets of film and the other checking the aperture or shading the lens, he worked with surprising speed. He used the big, cumbersome Deardorf almost as if it was a 35 mm camera. His sense of urgency heightened the tension of a portrait session. There was nothing casual about the process. That first weekend in Sweetwater, I wondered why he worked so fast. It seemed to me that he might miss something. Later I understood that there is an optimum time with any subject, after which attention fades. The speed and tension that Avedon brought to a session transferred to the subject, concentrating the energy and compressing the space between them. This shared territory of intimacy allowed Avedon to see the slightest change of expression, to sense any shift of mood, to whisper encouragement and direction to his subject. The photograph became a collaboration.


The white seamless paper served to isolate the subject from the environment. "I wanted the thrill of the person to come forward out of the white," Avedon said. Landscape seemed to him to be a distraction. Within this strict, aggressively neutral framework, he experimented with the person's form, gesture, and expression. Avedon photographed in the shade, using available light and avoiding the harsh shadows and highlights of sunshine that tend to dominate a face. He didn't use strobe lights because they gave photographs an artificial look. He sought the special beauty of shaded light. It has a neutral quality. It allows the emotion to come forward out of a face without directing attention through light and shadow to certain features. Avedon worked outdoors mainly during the warm-weather months when people's bodies were revealed rather than in winter when they were bundled up in heavy clothes.


There is a worldwide impression of the American West, however ill-informed it might be. The writer John Graves, who lives on "hardscrabble" land in Somervell County southwest of Fort Worth, once said to me, "Marlboro Country is always just a little west of where you are." The prospect of Richard Avedon, this most Eastern of photographers, heading west was unexpected, but the unexpected had always defined Avedon's work. Right from the start, he chose men and women who worked at hard, uncelebrated jobs, people whose lives were often ignored or overlooked. The Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater set his course.


For six straight summers, from 1979 to 1984, I traveled with Avedon and his two assistants in a Suburban with our equipment packed into the back. We were on the road anywhere from a week to a month at a time. We crisscrossed the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountain states from Central Texas to the Sierra Nevada, from the Rio Grande to the Canadian border. In places like Hobbs, New Mexico, and Hardin, Montana, people had never heard of Richard Avedon. It was through letters of introduction--and persuasion--that he was able to find and photograph his subjects. I planned each trip to take advantage of events where large numbers of people gathered. We searched through crowds for subjects, and it was a numbers game to find the one person Avedon was looking for. Often chance played a part--the random glimpse of a drifter walking along Interstate 40 near Yukon, Oklahoma, or the brief conversation with a policeman in a tattoo parlor in San Antonio.


What Avedon saw was dictated by what he was looking for. And what he was looking for was not confirmation of John Ford's mythical vision of the West but faces that expressed how he felt about the human condition. He headed in thematic directions dictated by what he had seen on that first trip to Sweetwater. He had several themes, and he kept circling them. "I'm looking for a new definition of a photographic portrait," he told me. "I'm looking for people who are surprising--heartbreaking--or beautiful in a terrifying way. Beauty that might scare you to death until you acknowledge it as part of yourself." He responded to the men and women who did the physical labor upon which most of the country depended, to the teenagers who committed too young to responsibilities too great. And he saw the results of helter-skelter lives played out against the isolation of an unforgiving landscape.