Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’

by Luuk van den Berg on Oct 19, 2020

Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’

For Avedon’s program is supraindividual. He wants to portray the whole American West as a blighted culture that spews out casualties by the bucket: misfits, drifters, degenerates, crackups, and prisoners-entrapped, either literally or by debasing work.

Written by Max Kozloff
This article was published on American Suburb X

“Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is… the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own. ” – Richard Avedon

No one has smiled in an Avedon portrait for a long time. If there was pleasure in their lives it left them in the act of posing, or rather, confronting his lens. One sitter, de Kooning, told Harold Rosenberg that Avedon “snapped the picture. Then he asked ‘Why don’t you smile?’ So I smiled but the picture was done already….” The photograph of de Kooning and the quote appeared in Avedon’s Portraits (1976), an image-gallery of famous people in the arts and media. A disproportionate number of them look either snappish or torpid and tired… oh so tired… unto death.

At the end of that book, in a suite of shots that record the progress of his father’s cancer, the subject is described as literally wasting away. But this is a progressive account not so much of the flesh dying off, but more of his father’s terrified knowledge of his decomposition – a conclusive rush of dismay that gives Portraits its unstated theme.

Avedon’s most recent portrait effort, In the American West, published by Abrams in 1985, furthers that theme, once again by a characteristic emphasis at the end of the book. There, in studies of slaughtered sheep and steer, he insists upon such details as glazed and sightless eyes, blood-matted wool, and gore languidly dripping from snouts. As his father was the only unprominent person in the first campaign, so the animals are the only nonhuman subjects in the second. It’s as if Avedon were each time underlining his philosophy by breaking his category. Adjoining the guignol presences of the animals are ghoulish images of miners and oil-field workers, as befouled by the earth as the animals by their spilled entrails.

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Richard Avedon - In The American West 

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