donderdag 11 april 2019

Views & Reviews AVEDON TAKES A DARK VIEW OF THE WEST In the American West Ansel Adams F. Holland Day August Sander Richard Avedon Photography

Andere auteursRichard Avedon (Fotograaf)
Harry N. Abrams (1985), Editie: 1st, 172 pagina's

The article as it originally appeared.
December 15, 1985, Page 002041
The New York Times Archives

In the photographs of the late Ansel Adams, the American West is composed of majestic landscapes that express the nobility of the human spirit. Everything is primeval, pure, just as it left God's hands. A younger generation of photographers has challenged this view of the West with pictures that include beer cans, tract houses and shopping malls, peopled either by slack-jawed, dull-eyed Philistines unworthy of the landscape they inhabit, or (the more radical version) puzzled, frightened victims of forces that have despoiled them along with the countryside.

Richard Avedon's book and exhibition, ''In the American West, 1979-1984,'' places him squarely in the camp of the younger generation. The reduced version of the exhibition now showing in New York in two galleries - the Pace Gallery, 32 East 57th Street, until Jan. 11, and the Pace/ McGill Gallery, 11 East 57th Street, through Jan. 4 - is less than half the size of the 120-photograph traveling exhibition that originated at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth and that is now at the Corcoran Gallery in Washington. However, despite its small size, the New York version makes its point.

More than half of its 45 photographs are hung in Pace's second-floor gallery at 37 East 57th Street. The viewer who starts there is confronted on entering with a larger-than-life portrait bust of a Colorado coal miner, long-haired as a hippie, shirtless, with a misshapen yet sensitive-looking face and an expression both soulful and resigned. In pose and expression, the coal miner looks remarkably like one of F. Holland Day's self-portraits as Christ crucified, and one realizes with a start how stereotyped and uninformed by experience one's idea of a coal miner can be. But one is also nagged by a tiny doubt that this coal miner is typical of his world.

On the far wall to the left are four three-quarter length portraits, also somewhat larger than life, that do little to resolve this dilemma. One is of a ''carney,'' a young Hispanic man with a solemn, skeptical expression and a remarkable S-shaped torso. The next shows a long-haired young blond boy - or perhaps it is a girl; the long hair and youth are confusing -who seems to be handling a snake, though a close inspection reveals that the snake is dead, skinned and gutted. The third shows a stolid, stocky migrant worker of strongly Indian features, photographed at Eagle Pass, Tex., close to the Mexican border, bare chested and dripping wet, perhaps from an illegal crossing. The fourth shows a bald man of almost albino whiteness, his bare chest, arms and head covered with bees.

Are these four typical of the Westerners Avedon encountered, the viewer may ask, and if so, has he tried to bring out what is most characteristic of them, as August Sander, for instance, did when he photographed his fellow Germans between the two World Wars? The viewer in search of an answer to these questions may look to the right of the Christ-like coal miner and see, on the far wall, a group portrait of four somewhat less spiritual-looking coal miners covered with grime, just as, we may assume, they look when they emerge from the pit after work.

There are, altogether, 35 people depicted in the 26 pictures in Pace's second-floor gallery, and 13 of them are unwashed miners or oil-field workers, two of whom (Tom Stroud and Red Owens) look like they have terrible skin diseases. There are also (in addition to the carney, the snake handler, the migrant worker and the bee-keeper) two tattooed convicts, a lumber salesman, a waitress, a ranch hand, a shipping clerk, a drifter, a nuclear-fallout victim, a housekeeper and several young people identified only by their ages, including a 9-year-old carrying a gun almost as big as he is.

The rest of the show is in the same spirit. Upstairs at 32 West 57th Street there are seven more pictures with 10 people, including one drifter, one certified madman, one unemployed farm hand, a one-armed old farmer and a well scrubbed coal miner dressed up in tie and cardigan with his two beefy sons in suits. At Pace/ McGill there are 11 people and 12 pictures: three grimy miners, one slaughterhouse worker covered with blood, four drifters, one madwoman, one waitress and one female occupational therapist. Nowhere in the exhibition are there any lawyers, doctors, business executives, politicians, army officers or wealthy retired persons, though such people certainly exist in the American West. Even in the full exhibition and book (''In the American West,'' Abrams, $45) there are few people who might qualify even as white-collar workers, much less community leaders.

Avedon has clearly not intended to make the kind of scientific survey of Western American society that Sander attempted for Germany. Though his pictures have the look of anthropological studies, in that most of the people face the camera directly, and all of them are isolated from their surroundings against a plain white background, most of his subjects are drawn from a narrow range of Western types. All are identified with a name (if known), a brief descriptive tag, usually occupational, and the place and date where they were photographed, as they might be in a scientific study, and the clarity of detail, every wrinkle, pore and dust speck distinctly rendered, is beyond praise. However, Avedon does not seem to aim for the impersonal objectivity that makes Sander's survey of German types so impressive.

He seems rather to be possessed by an artistic vision of the American West as purgatory, if not hell, on earth. With one striking exception, a laughing madman, few of his American Westerners even smile, and most of them seem to be suffering from some sort of metaphysical anxiety, or perhaps it is just from difficult, boring jobs and too much television. Many of them are dirty and misshapen in ways that are often associated with degradation and depravity, but sometimes also with superior virtue, and the few who are reasonably neat, clean and good looking usually seem, at least in these pictures, to suffer from a spiritual emptiness that ranges from solemn discontent to smug complacency.

Avedon has, in short, brought to obscure inhabitants of the American West the same brilliant, perverse, theatrical imagination that he has previously brought to European and American artistic and political celebrities, not to mention fashion and advertising photography. That the results are not scientifically objective truth scarcely needs to be stressed, but if it does, the skeptic need only turn to the text of Avedon's book.

In an afterword, his assistant Laura Wilson describes his choice of subjects as ''completely subjective,'' and in the foreward he himself is perfectly clear about what he does. A portrait sitting, he says, is a conflict of views between the sitter and the photographer in which the photographer has the upper hand, and the result is not ''the truth'' but a fiction or opinion. Richard Avedon's ''In the American West'' is a long way from the majesty and nobility of Ansel Adams, but for a horrifying thrill there has not been such a good show since ''Frankenstein.''

See also

The Interior World of Richard AvedonPhotography

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