When Mitchell Wilder, the Amon Carter Museum of American Arts first director, commissioned Richard Avedon to undertake a Western Project in 1978, the museum had no way of knowing the New York-based photographer famous for his fashion photography and portraits of celebrities, politicians and sports figures would extend the project for five years.
Avedon was an odd choice, but Wilder wanted publicity for the young museum and knew that hiring Avedon, who had just had a retrospective at New Yorks Metropolitan Museum of Art, would get national attention.
Once Avedon began his western odyssey, he was reluctant to see it end. The museum did not have unlimited funds for his travels and insisted he wrap it up. So after five years of travel, 17,000 sheets of exposed film and 9 months of darkroom work, the exhibition opened.
In 1985, In the American West debuted to horror and outrage. Viewers were expecting a John Huston view of the West, gritty but romanticized heroic, even. What they saw was definitely gritty but only the size of the prints was heroic.
Wilder never heard the negative reviews. He died of leukemia six months after commissioning the project. The negative noise was more than anyone expected. The museum got the national attention Wilder craved, just not the glowing reviews that were anticipated.
The invisible people
The public was angered by Avedons choices; he didnt pick the square-jawed cowboy, the Stetson-wearing oil tycoon or any of Texas plethora of beauty queens. He chose the invisible people hardworking miners, grocery store cashiers, roughnecks and truck drivers. These were people who were not used to being singled out for their work or for the way they looked.
Avedon put them center stage on a large sheet of white paper and asked them to relax and not smile. It was difficult for them. They werent sure why they were chosen, and their sense of being an outlier was reinforced by the attentions of this commanding man.
It took something special to be singled out by Avedon certainly not beauty or ugliness. He avoided the charmers and the self-absorbed. He chose people who seemed surprised by his interest, and in their discomfort at his scrutiny, emitted a steely grit and unapologetic frankness.
Several of them were photographed on more than one occasion. It took three sittings before Avedon was satisfied with the photograph of Boyd Fortin, the 13-year-old rattlesnake skinner from Sweetwater.
Sweetwaters annual Rattlesnake Roundup was Avedons first stop on his travels and from that week. Six of the people he photographed out of the 752 total would eventually make it into the exhibition. Fortins cherubic blond curls, contrasted by his grim expression and grisly offering of a gutted snake held in front of his blood-stained overalls, set a high bar.
Its been 32 years now since the photographs were first displayed, although there is little evidence of the passing decades. Only Rita Carls winged haircut, a Farrah Fawcett approximation, is the most blatant example. With so few obvious tells, the photographs seem timeless.
The shadowless white background, a limited depth of field, the direct eye contact of his sitters and Avedons printing them larger than life were radical at the time. It doesnt look so now, but neither does it look dated.
He insisted that the edges of his sheets of film be part of the print so it was obvious he had not cropped his photographs. The large prints were mounted on sheets of aluminum, so there was no need for frames of protective glass.
The resulting honesty of the subjects and photographers seemingly simple methods (even though there was significant dark-room manipulation to get the stark whites and subtle shadows during the printing process) made the series a seminal work of photography.
The style was copied, and the reaction to the jarring first glance was reconsidered. What was reviled soon became beloved. In the American West is one of the greatest photographic troves owned by the Carter, and it is often heralded as Avedons best work. The sweat-stained bodies and tired-eyed people are stars of the permanent collection.
Meeting public demand
John Rohrbach, the Carters senior curator of photographs, says he gets requests always monthly, often weekly to mount an exhibition of these photographs. He has compiled 17 portraits of Texans from the set of 124 to exhibit. It will not please the fans who have asked for more. There are not enough.
Rohrbach apologizes for the limited numbers, saying the entire set of photographs overwhelms the museum. This one gallery of prints will have to suffice for now, he says, and it is unlikely that the next round of exposure will happen during his lifetime.
So for anyone in need of another look, or for anyone who has never seen the photographs in person and they need to be seen in their gargantuan glory now is the time.
It is an unsatisfying endeavor, though, as the exhibition leaves the viewer with an overwhelming desire for more.