The American West – Richard Avedon

22nd March 2013

Before I looked at ‘The American West’, I seem to remember reading pat of a review where it had been said that the title had nothing whatsoever to do with the contents as it didn’t depict the American West as it really is.  Now doesn’t that sound like my review of Robert Frank’s ‘The Americans’?

I must say though that the review I’ve misquoted from is probably correct in my humble opinion, but having said that does it matter if the images are superb?  I don’t think it does, what’s in a title anyway?  It’s just a handle that a publisher uses to get you to pick up the book and see if you’ll buy it, let’s face it you don’t buy books simply for their title, well I don’t anyway, I buy them because of the author and his track record in entertaining me, and in this case the author, Richard Avedon, certainly does that alright.

It’s been several days now since I last looked at it, probably nearer to a fortnight, as I wanted to do ‘The Americans’ review first and I had it somewhere in my mind, before I got any of the books concerned with these two reviews, that perhaps I could connect and compare them.  Well, the only connect and compare I can see is that neither book lives up to the title and one of them has by far the better images which I really like, and it isn’t ‘The Americans’.

So forgetting the contrast, compare and discuss the two books what’s my take on ‘The American West’.  Although it’s not about the American West it is about SOME of the people who inhabit the American West, but given the right circumstances they could inhabit anywhere in America, it’s just their current occupations that make them belong to the West.

To me the images which I remember best are those of the drifters.  Men with no fixed abode, hobo’s in the eastern USA, tramps in England, but drifter makes my imagination jump into gear and recall the cowboy films of yesteryear when the sheriff or marshal would say, ‘Get outa town drifter this here’s a respectable place’.  And you know, at the time you couldn’t see why they were being like that to the drifter, he had a horse, he was well dressed, well nourished and he had the accoutrements of the cowboys trade to make a living.  But when you look at Avedons drifters, you see why they’d be asked to move on.  Even though the vast majority of the images in his book show dirty coal-miners and muddy oil workers, they can be cleaned up and fit in, they have a home where they’re loved and wanted (we assume), whereas the drifters are only just a little cleaner than them, permanently,their clothes are ill-fitting, worn and permanently filthy.  Their hair looks too long and not deliberately so, it looks very greasy and untouchable.  They’re under-nourished and they all have that downtrodden look in their eyes.  Just the sort you’d want to move on if they came knocking on your door panhandling as the Americans call it.

Each image is set against a (pure) white background, which was erected against the shady side of a vehicle or building wherever Avedon and his helpers happened to want to set up shop.  The helpers would erect his full frame camera, load the film slides and do the donkey work whilst Avedon himself would ‘work’ the subjects.  Avedon would stand very close to the subjects, within touching distance and use a remote to release the shutter not having checked at all whether or not the frame was filled correctly only knowing that the focus had been set before the session began.  There was no knowing what he’d get as a result and he found this a refreshingly fascinating way of making images, but there was definitely no going back to re-shoot it if he got it wrong as the plates weren’t developed  usually for weeks afterward, when there was a break in the travelling schedule and they returned to ‘base’. Luckily there were sufficient numbers of images that had the subject(s) well within the frame to make them very worth looking at.

All the images were shot against the same white paper background and so there’s no hint, anywhere, of where they are, what time of day it is or if they’ve all been taken in one session, but that I don’t think matters.  The images stand up for themselves and portray men, women and some children who have volunteered to be the subject, who will never ever see the end result unless they bought the book and were one of the fortunate few to be included, but you get a feeling that they won’t bother, they’re not that sort of people.  Their character comes through in every image, stoical about their lot in life, resigned to where they live and looking only to have a reasonable life before they pass on.  Every image is filled with beautiful detail, be it the clothing they wear, which makes them different from Easterners, the work tools they have themselves encumbered with, or simply the dirt of manual labour that paints them in a very different light.

I’d love to have this book as part of my collection and will keep an eye out for a reasonably priced copy so that I can enjoy  again and again these individual masterpieces from a master, who has made it into ‘My Hall of Fame’.


2 Responses to The American West – Richard Avedon

  1. Catherine says:

    I agree with you – the images are full of character and personality and make mw want to know the story that lies behind.

    • Eddy Lerp says:

      Ah, but the point of his exercise was NOT to know the story behind, strange but true. All Avedon wanted was the image of the character within the subject and for the viewer to supply the story of why they are Westerners, which I don’t think he achieves. What’s the difference between a coal-miner in Utah and one in the Appalachians, none as far as I can tell from their exteriors, it’s the title of the series I think that leads the mind to wonder.

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