Richard Avedon’s Portraits of the American West Ride Again

This article is part of our Museums special section about how art institutions are reaching out to new artists and attracting new audiences.

It started as a lark, the large format reinvention of the American West: The director of the Amon Carter Museum of American Art was chatting with an adviser one day in 1978, a jokingly aspirational idea was lobbed — what if the biggest photographer in the world did a show with our little Fort Worth museum? But the lark had legs, a meeting was arranged and soon Richard Avedon was leaving his rarefied Upper East Side universe for gypsum plants and oil fields.

At the time, it was a sentimental and well-worn vision that defined the West: rugged cowboys, sweeping pastoral beauty, the triumphalist, freedom-loving heart of America itself. The idea presented to Mr. Avedon: Find something new.

Commissioning the 55-year-old photographer for the project was a stroke of genius and/or insanity. Mr. Avedon had achieved cover-of-Newsweek renown for his chronicling of fame, culture, power and influence in late 20th-century America. He knew little of the West, save those same myths he’d inhaled. Eager but cautious, he flew to Texas for a test run in March 1979.

Alongside two camera assistants and Laura Wilson, the Dallas photographer he’d hired to help research locations, Mr. Avedon set out for the town of Sweetwater, home of the annual Rattlesnake Roundup. Over the next few days they fanned out, scanning the faces for a certain quality — one that would eventually transfix and flummox audiences in equal measure. Whatever it was they found it in Boyd Fortin, a 13-year-old with blond locks and the carcass of a rattler in his hands.

With the boy’s permission, Mr. Avedon led him to a white backdrop his assistants had taped against a wall. Before it stood a Deardorff 8X10, a large field camera that took extremely sharp pictures and allowed Mr. Avedon to stand beside rather than behind it, leaving nothing between him and his subjects. He was a wiry New York intellectual with a Harper’s Bazaar pedigree. But his ability to connect was uncanny, Ms. Wilson recalled in a recent phone call. Discomfort melted away in the face of his magnetism and infectious enthusiasm.

Mr. Avedon had famously captured Marilyn Monroe’s pouty glamour, Brigitte Bardot’s iconic chic, Andy Warhol’s electricity. Now, he was arranging a snake’s entrails in a boy’s hands in rural Texas. Something lurked in the teen’s gracefully skeptical eyebrow, his bloodstained apron, the guarded intensity he beamed into the camera.

Was he proud? Defensive? Was that revulsion or curiosity in his pale eyes?

It was on. Over the next six summers, from 1979 to 1984, Mr. Avedon and his team would pile into a Chevy Suburban and drive. In San Antonio and Butte and Cheyenne and Reliance they would meet miners, rodeo hands, slaughterhouse workers, bartenders, drifters, janitors and motel maids. There were bedraggled roughnecks in Oklahoma, a Loretta Lynn fan club in Colorado. Sometimes the team drove for a week, sometimes a month, Ms. Wilson recalled. They crashed in cheap motels, started again in the morning.

It was a big deal, a museum commissioning a project of this scope so far into the future. Mr. Avedon issued a warning to the museum director: “My vision’s not a romantic one.” When finally he shared his vision with the world in 1985 at that little Fort Worth museum, in an exhibition titled “In the American West,” it would prove transformational.

This spring, in one of many shows nationwide honoring the centennial of Mr. Avedon’s birth, the Carter Museum mounted 13 of Mr. Avedon’s portraits once again; they will hang until Oct. 1.

While he was on the road — at county fairs and truck stops — he sought out ordinary people emitting extraordinary qualities: beauty, heartbreak, some holy combination. He posed each before that white backdrop; the West itself would be absent from the portraits, except that it wasn’t. In the set of a jaw or the searchingness of a squint you could make out the parched rangeland or the old copper pit or the vanishing farm jobs. Something unfamiliar was coming into focus.

“I grew up with John Wayne and Gary Cooper. And Cole Porter — ‘Don’t Fence Me In.’ And Louis L’Amour and Zane Grey and Marlboro men,” Mr. Avedon said in a 1985 interview with The Washington Post. “And when I went out west I looked and none of it was there.”

What he found was hardship, and a grim gulf between frontier mythology and reality. In lieu of the rugged cowboy Mr. Avedon shot an out-of-work busboy in Provo, Utah, jeans cinched against his gauntness. (Five years later, the young man’s mother wrote to inform Mr. Avedon her son had died soon after his portrait was taken.)

In her account of the project, “Avedon at Work: In the American West,” Ms. Wilson recalls a truism once spoken by the Texas writer John Graves: “Marlboro Country is always just a little west of where you are.”

By the end, Mr. Avedon had stopped in 189 towns in 17 states, photographing 752 tired and obliging souls. In total Mr. Avedon exposed some 17,000 sheets of film. He destroyed all but 124 portraits for that initial 1985 exhibition at the Amon Carter Museum.

It was — it is — hard to describe the impact of the series. In his foreword to Ms. Wilson’s book, Larry McMurtry calls it “a radical break with the long-dominant lyrical pastoral tradition of Western photography.” The subjects, blown up life-size, stare back. With what — bitterness? Plaintiveness? Certainty? Diffidence? Taken together, they flick at a larger story: the grueling reality behind the country’s most insistent narratives, the grinding effort just to make it.

What lay at the heart of the project? Mr. Avedon had documented a long overlooked reality. But he had also selected that reality for how it reflected his sense of the human experience. “This is a fictional West,” he said when the exhibition opened, though it homed in on brutal truths. To take in the portraits was to ponder not just this new representation of the country, but our own place in it.

Critics tore into him, even while the project was hailed as a milestone.

“Given that he was this urban sophisticate, people thought he was exploiting his subject matter. Most critics thought it was high style, devoid of content,” Philip Gefter, author of the Avedon biography “What Becomes a Legend Most,” said in a phone interview. “He was always hurt by it. He thought they were missing the point.”

The point wasn’t the subject matter but Mr. Avedon’s vision of it, according to Mr. Gefter. What’s more, to dismiss the photographer as some kind of carpetbagger was, arguably, to misunderstand the West. The land he supposedly parachuted into had itself been the invention of outsiders, with agendas of their own.

That simplistic vision of self-reliance and liberty indicted by Mr. Avedon’s photos: It had been painstakingly constructed and politicized for well over a century. Ronald Reagan had beat that very drum into the White House as Mr. Avedon roamed the countryside.

In time, the uproar would fade, leaving only the stunning images. For his part, Mr. Avedon seemed to have foreseen their staying power. At that very first shoot, he’d made a promise to the 13-year-old holding the rattlesnake.

“I will make your picture famous,” he said.

“Yeah, whatever,” the boy replied. Decades later, a reporter from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram found him. Recalling the exchange as he looked back on the picture — which had indeed become famous — Mr. Fortin said he saw in it a kid who was angry at the world.

“But I realize now that when you look at what Avedon got in all of his pictures, it was a sternness in everybody’s face,” he said, adding “I’m very proud of this picture.”

Ms. Wilson said that, in the end, most criticism of the series was long-distance.

“The people in the West actually living those lives — they responded with more understanding and empathy than the critics,” she said. “Dick’s West was as true, maybe more true, than John Wayne’s.”

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