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Avedon at 100
Dawoud Bey reflects on "In the American West"
We all stand on the shoulders of giants.
That’s a beautiful thing about photography — learning how previous artists have inspired those artists we admire. Dawoud Bey is one of my favorite photographers, and I always look forward to his social media posts. He wrote about this Avedon picture on Facebook the other day, and it resonated with me, so I asked if we could reprint it here. He graciously agreed. Dawoud writes:
As we approach the 100th year of Richard Avedon's birth, I thought I'd share one of my favorite photographs of his from the “In the American West” project, which Avedon completed between 1979 and 1984, and which was commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. I've often referred to these pictures as some of the most significant portraits of the 20th century in their execution. The initial critical response to these pictures was widely varied, with some, like Max Kozloff, excoriating the work and noting that "No one has smiled in an Avedon portrait for a long time," which to me was not a problem at all, since a smiling countenance isn't consistent with what I find interesting about the best portraits, which at their most engaging reveal a sense of interiority.
Often, the critical response was a critique of Avedon's outsized personae. As one of his era's most successful and highly-paid advertising photographers, he moved through the world with extreme confidence and bravado. And some thought that such a successful commercial photographer had no business mucking around in that hardscrabble part of the American West from which Avedon drew many of his subjects. The results could only be exploitative, they reasoned. But the psychological, gestural, and behavioral nuances that Avedon drew from his subjects placed in front of seamless white paper taped to the side of buildings in various locations where he made the portraits were, to my mind, anything but that. On the gestural and behavioral level alone, the pictures subvert the seeming limitations of their circumstances and the body's capacity to respond in a range of ways in front of the camera. After all, how many things can one do with a person standing in front of white seamless backdrop paper? A lot, actually, and Avedon's pictures are proof of their constant reinvention of human behavior in front of the camera, which is part of the work's brilliance.
I first encountered Avedon's work in his first exhibition at New York's Marlborough Gallery in 1977. I was a fledgling photographer then, having only started making pictures in Harlem two years before, and I was trying to take in as much as possible while I considered what my own subject and vocabulary would be. Avedon's prints in that show were big, larger than any photograph in an art context had ever been, and they brought the subject to a life-size presence and scale. Made with an 8X10 tripod-mounted camera, they contained a wealth of material information in each large print. It took me over a decade to move from the tradition of making pictures in the streets with a small handheld camera to finally using a large format camera mounted on a tripod. The challenge of the range of things that people could do when confronted with a large camera in front of them and how to direct them towards a performance of themselves was something that Avedon's pictures had given me a roadmap for in 1977.
This portrait, "Juan Patricio Lobato, Carney, Rocky Ford, Colorado, August 23, 1980," contains all of the myriad details — from body language and shape to the cigarette pack tucked into the waistband and the looped chain — that are the things that one has to work with in seeking to describe an individual to the world. It remains one of my favorite portraits by Avedon from this significant project.
About the author
MacArthur Fellow Dawoud Bey has been a groundbreaking American artist for decades, making evocative work about those communities that are often marginalized and mining the histories of those Black communities and their people. He began his career as a photographer in 1975 with a series of photographs, “Harlem, USA,” later exhibited in his first one-person exhibition at the Studio Museum in Harlem in 1979.
His work has since been the subject of numerous exhibitions and retrospectives at museums and galleries worldwide, including the Art Institute of Chicago, the Barbican Centre, Birmingham Museum of Art, Detroit Institute of Art, High Museum of Art, San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Studio Museum in Harlem, and the Whitney Museum of American Art among many others.
Dawoud is a Professor of Art and a former Distinguished College Artist at Columbia College Chicago, where he has taught since 1998.
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“In the American West” is legendary, and I’ll bet many of you consider Avedon an influence in one way or another. I have always loved this image of the young Boyd Fortin. Honestly, every one of these pictures is a stunner. You can see all 124 of Avedon’s West photographs on The Amon Carter Museum website.
I’m sure many of you have Avedon reflections to share — please leave them in the comments. And if you haven’t visited The Richard Avedon Foundation website, now’s the time. It’s a treasure trove of images and information. Enjoy!