In 1978 glamour photographer Richard Avedon shot some portraits in the MidWest. The Amon Carter Museum in Forth Worth, Texas, asked him to follow up on those, and Avedon set out for the American West to portray what amounts to the reverse side of the American dream. The project ran until 1984. By then, Avedon had photographed 752 people in 17 states; a selection of 123 portraits constituted the eventual exhibition and the collection in this book. The illusion of equality and great opportunities for all, and the Hollywood-slash-John wayne dream of the good old pioneering West – a dream shared by a surprising lot of westerners themselves – are effectively shattered by these haunting portraits of barmaids, drifters, ranch-hands, prisoners, mental patients, Hutterites, coal miners, slaughter house workers, 12 year old girls looking twice their age, teenage boys handling guns and snakes, oil-rig workers, and many others alongside them. There is hardly a face here that is not marked by toil and hardship, the stark black-and-white detailing every crevice, freckle, rimple, mole and scar. As one commentator noted, the West is often represented by its landscape; here the faces are the landscape of the West, and, one might well suspect, its true landscape. Of course, similar portraits of ordinary people living under harsh conditions could be taken in many places in the world; the portraits in this volume take a significant part of their impact from the fact that they come from that “greatest nation on earth”, a land associated with glamour, enterprise, success and outward appearances, that we are used to seeing represented rather differently than we find it here.
Here, the great heroic cowboy dream is reduced to a shiny, oversized rodeo buckle worn by a skinny boy. Yet there is nothing condescending or patronizing about these images, on the contrary. The facial expressions mostly speak of deep earnestness and dogged determination, rarely of sadness, and most of the people we meet in this book exude an extraordinary power and pride despite their often dishevelled looks and sweat- and dirtstained clothes (others, however, have donned their best finery). But there is anger, threat, and undisguised, at times overwhelming machismo too, as well as an occasional subject who seems on the verge of tears, like oil field worker Bubba Morrison. The portraits are painfuly candid, often moving, and always artistically well-considered and visually beautiful.
Amazon.com Review of Avadons Wild west book by Martin P