Richard Avedon: Western Sideshow
by Dave Crossley
"in The American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon. Harry N. Abrams. Inc. New York. September, 1985, US."
For five summers, beginning in 1979, Richard Avedon and his entourage toured the American West making portraits, supported by a commission from Fort Worth's Amon Carter Museum. The project was instigated by the museum's late director. Mitchell A. Wilder, and has now become a major touring exhibition (opening at the Amon Carter on September 14. then traveling on to Washington. DC.. San Francisco. Chicago, Phoenix, Boston, and Atlanta) and an elaborate book and catalogue. Apparently. Wilder had the idea after seeing a 1978 portrait Avedon had made of a ranch foreman in Montana, It would be interesting to see that photograph now. in the presence of these pictures, which evoke a feeling remindful of the work of Diane Arbus. Many of those photographed by Arbus were people upon whom life had visited a terrible vrolence, in the form of physical or mental aberrations, or who had chosen a way of being that was not easily or lovingly grasped, at least not by me. For the most part, the people in Avedon's pictures seem to be denizens of an underworld populated by the cast of an enormous traveling sideshow, albeit one in which physical strangeness fails to extend to gigantism or mongofoid-ism, A great many of Avedon's subjects suggest the idea of a family squirrelled away in some secluded mountain area, inbreeding for generations and deprived of all knowledge of the rules of the Taste Fblice. for whom Avedon works when he's not doing projects such as this one. Many look as though Avedon had stormed their homes and forced them up against the white seamless backdrop paper, their pants unbuttoned, hair dishevelled, and their demeanor reflecting utter resignation before this master of control. Others seem to have been dragged from their jobs in the coal mine, the oil field, or the slaughterhouse for a celebration of their dirtiness. Some are nearly incredible in their sense of theatre — one slaughterhouse worker seems to have stuck his head into the head of a skinned, bloody dripping steer with the tongue hanging out and the eye bulging. If Avedon wants us to know how grim are trie jobs, even the lives, of many people, he has surely succeeded at that. Even those who have been allowed to prepare themselves are covered with sequins and incredible combinations of patterns, if not body-engulfing tattoos. A few escape, A striking 12-year-old girl on the cover (whom Avedon has turned into a smouldering woman), a young rancher from Montana, a couple of God-fearing Hutte rites, are among the small band of souls who managed to elude the cloak of weirdness Avedon has Cast over so many of these subjects.
I've been on Avedon's cheering squad for more than thirty years and during that time I've been bemused by the schizophrenia of his career, making some people beautiful, glamorous, and others ugly and fearsome beyond the reality which would be perceived by normal eyes in the actual presence of the people, where we make our living portraits to include voices, movements, ideas, manners, personalities. When he first started making the blunt pictures, hard, sad photographs of well known people, he seemed to be denying that he was a "fashion" photographer who lived in a phony world; quick as wink, he said No no look, they're all sick and dying, just like you and me. That he has not always been very nice to the memories of famous people (remember his terrible picture of Dwight Eisenhower? Dwight Eisenhower!) has not obscured his almost unbelievable skill or his legendary control.
This project was a turning away from the famous. In the book's afterword, Dallas photographer Laura Wilson, who traveled with Avedon. says "Right from the start. Avedon chose men and women who work at hard, uncelebrated jobs, the people who are often ignored or overlooked. He searched for what he wanted to see and his choices were completely subjective." In his comments about the project. Avedon has referred to Edward Curtis, and August Sander was clearly an influence. The work of these men appears to be documentary, but in fact is loaded with their ideas, their fantasies. Each photographer employed staging and each coaxed imagined characters out of his subjects. Avedon suggests that Curtis was dealing in fiction and is quite clear that he thinks he is. In the foreword to this book. Avedon says, "A portrait photographer depends upon another person to complete his picture. The subject imagined, which in a sense is me, must be discovered in someone else willing to become implicated in a fiction he cannot possibly know about. My concerns are not his. We have separate ambitions for the image. His need to plead his case probably goes as deep as my need to plead mine, but the control is with me." That's a pretty wonderful idea, that a portrait photographer can use a sitter to create fiction, and that we are not really finally looking at that person. On the one hand, this is a fabulous alibi for what sometimes appears to be cruelty, and on the other it's an assertion that's as fair for a photographer to make as for a painter. Isn't it?
Harold Brodkey thought so. writing his introduction to an earlier book Avedon: Photographs 1947-1977: "To make a photograph speak requires the connivance of all sorts of facts — and processes of fact — but then the lying must begin and a photographic language created which was not used by painters in their different games with time and truth and objects and faces. Only the conventional is comprehensible, and the conventional is The subject of most photographs perhaps — the banal, banality itself. The singular, the strange is the human voice, only half-comprehensible, an importunate and important murmur, not an ideogram, not comprehensible — but present."
So Billy Mudd, trucker, whose head and body don't quite match, is Avedon's human voice, as is Valentino Curley, grave digger, whose nose is broken and misshapen, and the bald Ronald Fischer, shirtless and covered with bees, and Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker, shiny with the blood of a hundred head of cattle, not to mention all the people who are just ugly, pockmarked and scarred, or who are frustrated by their own evil, sometimes, or by their ignorance, illiteracy, or poverty. I suppose we are all life's victims and so forth, but these people seem to have been pummeled about a little more than most.
It is curious that Avedon has produced a set of pictures that so clearly show his presence, when he says in the foreword. "These disciplines, these strategies, this silent theater attempt to achieve an illusion: that everything embodied in the photograph simply happened, that the person in the portrait was always there, was never told to stand there, was never encouraged to hide his hands, and in the end was not even in the presence of a photographer." But almost none of them show that separation. Many of the people look frightened, or overwhelmed, under alien control. Avedon stood a few inches to the side of the camera, and several of the subjects seem to be looking at him. which makes all the stranger [hose in which the subjects are, after all, staring at a lifeless lens, and thus at us. There is rarely a chance to forge! who the storyteller is. except when the subject wins, takes over the portrait, like some filmic cowboy, who then swaggers of into the sunset. How Avedon has stamped his name so forcefully on these pictures is a mystery to me.
Nor can I fathom how he has managed to invade the recesses of my already suffering mind with so much unpleasant imagery. Like the movie Straw Dugs. These pictures, and his previous hard work before them, cause permanent brain damage. Someone has suggested to me that their power comes only from knowing that The Great Avedon made them. I don't agree: I would always have known that Avedon made them. And I will always remember them, if not in their particulars, at least in their energy and ferocity. It is absolutely clear that Avedon has a powerful long-term vision which people are gradually letting him reduce to paper. It is also clear that he is very brave.
Harold Brodkey said "His pictures are always blasphemous, are always prepared for misinterpretation.... Have any reaction you like, misuse the photograph however you wish." I am uncomfortable suspecting that I have completely misunderstood. Though the pictures are powerful and intriguing (and no doubt will be much more so in their four- or five-foot-high versions at the Amon Carter exhibition). I cannot shake the notion that many of them are also cruel. Avedon says "All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth." These photographs prove both points.
(The text accompanying the photographs was written by Dallas photographer Laura Wilson, who accompanied Avedon on his trips through the West. Her descriptions are printed as an afterword in the book, from which these are excerpted.)
In Jordan, Montana, we met up with the Wheatcroft brothers, Richard and Bred- They drove us south in their pickup, fast, over dusty, dirt roads that go like arrows directly from one point to another. Prong-homed antelope darted fitfully front the noise. We never had a casual drive in a pickup. Western drivers are impatient with the endless space.
We stopped to climb a high butte which rose like a sentinel from the flatlands. The Wheatcroft brothers picked up shards of arrowheads, spotting them the way some people can sight a meteorite on a star-filled sky. On top of the butte was a drystone column scaled to a man, built by the second group of wanderers in this pan of Montana — sheepmen in search of open range.
As we entered Ingomar, three children ran op the dirt street to hang onto our pickup the Wheatcroft brothers took their "hardware" (a model .66 Smith and Wesson, a Colt New Frontier 45, and a 22/32 Kit gun) off the dashboord and stowed it under the front seat.
We stopped at the Jersey Lily, where a couple of men were drinking at the bar, two teenage boys played pool, and a Japanese man from the seismograph crew of on oil exploration company looked very much alone. We ordered steaks and "Jersey Lily Beans." acknowledged as the best pinto beans in Eastern Montana. As we ate, Brad Wheatcroft reminisced. Their grandfather had come to Montana with a wave of homesteaders m 1913 and received three hundred and twenty semi-arid acres, free, from the United States Government. As homestead's were abandoned during droughts and the Depression, the grandfather bought neighboring sections of land for twenty-five cents an acre. Brad and Richard's father took over m the 1950s and ranched the accumulated nine thousand acres. But the margin of profit with cattle was so slim that Brad and two other brothers were forced to look for work off the ranch, in 1978, their father was crushed to death in a tractor accident. Richard, the youngest brother, found him. The responsibility of maintaining the ranch went to Richard. He had no choice.
Montana does not yield easy ways to make a living. In the cattle business, even in a good year Richard can only hope to hold what the Wheatcrofts already own. Brad said that if they could just hang on a few more years, with all the energy exploration, maybe they'd come into some money. "Who knows," he smiled, "we might wind up as the Cabots and the Lodges of Montana."
We saw firsthand the single biggest change taking place in.the American West since the dosing of the open range and the building of the railroads: the energy boom. In the 1970s energy companies were taking another look at out-of-fashion fuels like coal. Huge strip-mining operations scraped coal from surface deposits in Wyoming, Montana and Colorado, Old tunnel mines were reopened: men went back in and dug deeper.
The Old Stansbury Coal Mine in Reliance, Wyoming was reopened in 1975 after having been shut for almost two decades. The workers were young rough, and itinerant. They went underground cramped in smali vehicles called "mantrips," scratched with graffiti on the doors, seats, and roofs. After fifty feet, daylight disappeared. The "man-trip" continued down to a depth of 3,500 feet-There in complete darkness, the miners began their long walk to the “face”, the seam where coal was being cut. Their commute lasted almost an hour, one way. The men walked through "entry" tunnels no higher than five feet in many places. They walked bent over on rocky, uneven footing; water seeped in from side walls. For us, unaccustomed to the depth and blackness and cramped passageways, all visual hearings were lost: the light from the miners' helmets did little good. We couldn't see. So we strained to hear, and the soundlessness of the tunnels was forbidding. The air was fouled by coal dust, filing our nostrils and throats, covering our faces and clothes. The miners checked the oxygen in the air each hour, in old, worked-out areas of the mine, the "entries" didn't always get enough air. The lack of oxygen is as deadly as a poisonous gas. The miners call it "black damp."
There are other dangers in tunnel coal mining: "float dust," for example, tiny particles of coal that accumulate as the cutting machine works at the face of the coal-seam. A random spark from the bit can ignite these particles, causing an explosion. "Bounce" — a deceptively lighthearted term used by miners to describe the tremendous heat caused by the earth settling — can start a cave-in from which no one escapes.
The young miners like the challenge and danger. They discount the odds of "knowing that some day you might buy it." A miner said, matter-of-factly, "it's not boring. I guess the danger has something to do with it." A face boss told us. "Aimers are like sailors going to sea. They pit themselves against the earth the way sailors go out to sea."
Then there are what one mine foreman called the "tender ones." men who grew up together, went to school together, whose brothers or fathers or uncles are miners, and who, right out of high school, could make top wages in mining. They like working together, watching out for each other. Roger Tim,, a 21-year-old miner from Reliance. Wyoming said, "I like it I really like it down there. Nobody can get to you."
Las Vegas, New Mexico, is an hour's drive around the southern edge of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains from Santa Fe. In the 1920s and 30s, while Santa Fe grew as an artists and writers colony, Las Vegas depended on dry-land farming and ranching. During the Depression the town struggled to maintain itself. The town square, once an oasis of tall Uve oak trees surrounded by two-story brick buildings, took on the shabby appearance of a place where opportunity would knock only once.
Today, Las Vegas exists to support the political agencies of New Mexico's San Miguel County. It is also the home of the State mental hospital. Founded in the 1940s, the hospital is a complex of redbrick buildings, all having the institutional look of the period. Many of the patients are Hispanic and come from isolated, rural communities in New Mexico. We photographed them in the spring of I980 during Holy Week, snow was still on the ground. Daily temperatures varied from 35 to 50, making it too cold to photograph outside. We set up the camera and the white paper in the main cafeteria facing the morning light flooding in from a wall of windows. At 11:45 am, men and women filed in and took trays of food to tables where they sat together. Members of the hospital staff helped them select foods and relax and talk to one another. A woman entered the cafeteria, taking three steps at a time, then stopping until she counted from one to ten. She was in her mid-thirties and wore a white blouse and blue pantsuit. No one interfered with her, but the time she spent to take such precise steps used up most of her lunch period. Avedon asked if he might take a picture. She wore, for the portrait, a silver rosary around her neck. After the sitting she sat and talked with us, quietly. The assistants took several Polaroids to give to her. Avedon handed her the most flattering one. She asked to see the others, and looked carefully at each picture. "Does this look like me?" She held out a close-up of just her face, distorted and blurred by the automatic focus of the Polaroid. "This is the best one of me," she said. "Its how I feel."
In Omaha, Nebraska, and Amarillo, Texas. Avedon photographed men whose faces were covered in red and purple. They work in meatpacking plants, slaughtering 300 head of cattle per hour. With rotating shifts of 100 to 140 men,the plants are in operation 14 to 18 hours a day. The cattle are driven from outside pens up a ramp to a narrow retainer. There, longing and bowling, each animal is killed by a "knocking gun" which shoots a pin into its head. Immediately a shackle pin, wrapped around the animials hind leg, jerks it into the air. The carcasses clatter along a rail in front of an assembly line of workers. First a great automatic scythe rips off the hide. Then a man on the "kill floor" splits the animal, cutting off its forelegs and its head, gutting its stomach. The kill floor is loud, hot, and steamy. Hose-water blasts the carcasses, washes the floor, and cleans the blood from the men's chests and arms.
Of all the jobs we saw — in the oil fields, in underground mines, on construction sites — the work in the slaughterhouse was the most exhausting and unrelieved. The odor is sickening and the noise never lets up.