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In The American West

April 30, 2007

Richard Avedon's series of portraits exploring the faces of the American West has achieved iconic status in the photography world over the past 20 years or so for good reason. The exhibition consists of 124 portraits of working class people from states like Wyoming, Ohio, and Texas, which Avedon took between 1979 and 1984 on a commission from the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas.

The first thing that hit me as I walked around the exhibition, currently on show at The Cantor Arts Center at Stanford University, a few days ago, were the eyes. The subjects stare out at you as if to say "take it or leave it, this is the truth." None of them smile (though a slight flicker of approval plays at the corners of one young man's mouth as he poses alongside his brother an father.)

The sheer size and steely definition of the images is impressive. There's nothing soft or friendly about them. It's no wonder that westerners took offense when the exhibition was first mounted in Fort Worth in 1985. Instead of depicting the west as a heroic frontier or the domain of wealthy oil barons, Avedon showed its everyday side -- the miners and hairdressers and truckers and hobos. Many people found the photos to be depressing and ugly. Those familiar with Avedon's work as a fashion and celebrity photographer thought he had gone off the deep end by portraying this grimy, totally unglamorous world.

I found myself transported to another time and place by those pictures, though in actual fact, you don't need to go far outside San Francisco today to find subjects very similar to those in Avedon's pictures.

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