PICTURE PERFECT: Amon Carter Museum resurrects Avedon’s powerfully haunting “In the American West.” 20 years later, the once-controversial images are now eternal icons
In 1978, when the Amon Carter Museum commissioned Richard Avedon (1923-2004) to shoot his vision of the American West, things were different. Photography was barely gaining acceptance as a true art form. And most people envisioned John Wayne movies when they dreamed about the West.
When the exhibit opened in 1985, people freaked out. Instead of handsome portraits of oil barons, ranch owners and twangy socialites, they saw ravaged drifters, well-worn clowns and people on society’s edge: prisoners, coal miners and amputees.
A critic for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram slammed it saying, “This is not our West.” Others called it cruel, cynical and vicious. While not for everyone, many instantly recognized the haunting, graphic beauty of “In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon.” Some art historians say the exhibit cemented Avedon’s reputation as the most influential photographer of the 20th century.
The 128-portrait exhibit was powerful, to say the least. Using his signature nine-foot by seven-foot white backdrop, Avedon eliminated the specifics of place. Instead, the viewer is lured into a disarming communion with these westerners. And now, 20 years later, the Amon Carter is re-mounting a portion of the original exhibit — 78 oversized photos.
Looking back, the big question is whether these images stand the test of time. The images are no longer shocking. In fact, some are already burned into our memories: like the first portrait of Sandra Bennett, a 12-year-oold from Rocky Ford, Colorado. Her cascading hair, her freckles and her comfy overalls welcome you. But she’s not smiling. Actually, Avedon told all of his subjects not to smile.
The exhibit is a journey. Off-white walls and happier-seeming people adorn the first portion. As you enter different chambers, the walls become dark grey and the quiet expressions grow louder with hints of angst, desperation and loneliness.
Dallas photographer Laura Wilson (Owen and Luke’s mom) attended a recent preview of the exhibit. Avedon hired Wilson as an assistant for the project. Does she know if any of the subjects were openly gay?
“Well that word openly. That makes a difference, doesn’t it?” she says.
Wilson takes me to what’s called the “drifter room” and points to two portraits: Allen Silvy and Richard Garber.
Accompanied in this article, Silvy’s is one of the nine largest portraits in the exhibit. Funny, he hardly looks gay. With his hands shoved in his sport coat, he looks cold. The picture was taken on Dec. 14, 1980 on Route 93 in Chloride, Nev.
When Wilson points to the gaunt image of Garber, she says, “I believe he died of AIDS not long after that photo was taken.” Garber was photographed on Aug. 20, 1980 on Interstate 15 in Provo, Utah.
Avedon sometimes photographed people a few times. How well was he able to become acquainted with the drifters?
“Oh you’d be surprised,” Wilson says. “You can get to know a lot about someone from a single portrait session.”
In tandem with the Avedon exhibit, Wilson has a behind-the-scenes exhibit about the project. A portion of Wilson’s contains a letter that Garber’s mom wrote after he died.
After the drifters room, the walls turn to black. It’s like walking into a coal mine. The images of slaughterhouse workers seem plucked form a nightmare.
Amon Carter Museum, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd. Fort Worth. Through Jan. 8, 2006. $8. 817-738-1933.