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Indepth Arts News:

"Richard Avedon in the American West"
2001-09-29 until 2001-01-06
Kunstmuseum Wolfsburg
Wolfsburg, , DE

From the very start, the Kunstmuseum has assumed the mission of taking a fresh look at the classics of modern photography and presenting them to an interested public. Richard Avedon, born in New York and one of the leading photographers of the century, has been a restless and unsparing chronicler of our time for more than fifty years. No one, wrote John Lahr in the London Times, has ever given any nation a more comprehensive, more disciplined photographic document of itself. Avedon rose to fame in the 1950s with his unconventional photographs for Harper's Bazaar, in which he introduced a new naturalness and spontaneity into fashion photography, making his models dance, laugh and disport themselves with abandon, either in the studio or in the street.

He introduced a new emphasis into portrait photography by unveiling unexpected facets of well-known and unknown individuals against a plain white background. A portrait is not a likeness. The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is truth, says Avedon. His impressive psychological portrait sequences place him among the century's leading recorders of the human image.

This exhibition shows, for the first time in Germany, the full sequence of 124 portraits of the working class people of the American West, which Avedon took between 1979 and 1984 on a commission from the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas: The photographic series In The American West [...] was a gesture of liberation. I wanted to take time out from the unceasing demands of my studio to photograph a way of life that I wasn't familiar with. Avedon's photographs confront us with miners, unemployed people, drifters, farmers, cowboys, and convicts, often at life-size or over. Most of those photographed try to give as little of themselves away as possible. They appear to show no feelings beyond scepticism and reserve. In the bar, or at the rodeo, or working in the stockyard—wherever Avedon has found them—they may have been emotionally involved, cheerful, uninhibited, stressed or sad: but in front of his camera, they appear totally inward. There is barely a trace of the theatrical expressiveness or the extravagant gestures that Avedon elicits from the actors or writers who sit for him. These portraits of miners, drifters, oilfield workers, farmers, waitresses, saleswomen, are expressive nevertheless. Their hard physical labour, the harshness of their everyday lives, their struggle for survival, has etched their features and their souls as a river gouges out a canyon. Their faces become landscapes, and their bodies territories, on which they carry their garments around with them. Unlike celebrities, Avedon's people of the American West have nothing to lay aside. They have only their share of the human condition and their simple dignity. These are not 'famous people, seen in human terms' but human beings who mostly exist on the lowest levels of the social pyramid. Unlike August Sander who embarked on his series of People of the Twentieth Century in 1929 as a photographic social survey, and chose his subjects as representatives of occupations and social classes Avedon stresses the names of his people: Ronald Fisher, beekeeper; Boyd Fortin, rattlesnake skinner. By supplying a name, an occupation or age, a place and a date, he says to us: They really exist; I have met every one of them before they stood in front of my camera.

In its minimalist plainness and its concentration on the physical presence of the subjects, In The American West evokes images of the myth of the West, only to destroy them. For this project, Avedon travelled the States of the Great Plains and the Rocky Mountains as far as the Sierra Nevada in the west, Calgary, Canada, in the north and the Mexican border in the south. He tells us: This is a fictional West. I don't think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne.

Richard Avedon
Interstate 80 - Sparks, Nevada - August 29, 1983
Copyright: Richard Avedon

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