For six summers, from 1979 to 1984, Laura Wilson accompanied the New York-based photographer Richard Avedon throughout the rural West. Her job: Find beekeepers, oil-well drillers, vagrants, religious zealots, ranchers, coal miners and other iconic Westerners. One at a time, she’d line up these chosen people before a white backdrop and ask them to stand there, out of context, often covered with oil, coal dust or dirt from the job.
Those faces, seen first at an exhibit in Austin,
Texas, offended some Westerners and perplexed others. So many men
and women looked played out and exhausted. Often, their faces
seemed askew, wrinkled by hard physical work or from years of
hitting the road and hoping for rides.
Wilson, who lives
in Dallas, is a photographer in her own right — her book a
few years ago on the Hutterites of Montana was stunning — but
her role in her new book, Avedon at Work in the American
West, is that of documentarian. She explains that what
Avedon wanted wasn’t "confirmation of John Ford’s
mythical vision of the West, but faces that expressed how he felt
about the human condition." If the Western myth was one of triumph
and progress through the wilderness, Avedon’s view is one of
desperate endurance. His faces communicate suffering, loss, and in
many instances, a tough beauty. These faces steadily look out at us
and we stare back, transfixed.
Wilson’s reprise of
her trips through the region with Avedon is a gift. She mostly
documents setups of shoots, and though they are fascinating as
insider documents, they rarely excite. Then she shows us some of
the photos Avedon discarded after a session and those he chose to
keep; the difference being, in a word, art.
Avedon worked with intensity and startling speed, even though his
camera was a huge Deardorf that looked more like an old-fashioned
motion picture camera. "The tension Avedon brought to a session
transferred to the subject," she says, "concentrating the energy
and compressing the space between them." Avedon, she adds, was
fanatical about the printing of each photo, detailing with
meticulous care (and great expense) how he wanted the lights and
darks of each face suppressed or enhanced.
Avedon, we must confess here, is close to our heart. He spent days
in our mountain valley, photographing coal miners and setting up an
impromptu show so they could see their portraits as they left work.
He also spent time in the local Portal Bar, getting background on
the mine and men over beers. There, he learned that some had
fathers and grandfathers who’d also worked underground.
Thanks to Avedon’s stay in the North Fork Valley,
the face of a young U.S. Steel miner, Hansel Burum, will probably
live on for generations to come. Wilson tells us she asked Burum
what he’d thought when he saw Avedon’s picture of him
looking sad beyond words.
"He knew what he wanted," Burum
told her. "My father was killed in the Somerset mine; my two
brothers work there, and I’ve been in the mine now for five
years. I guess he wanted to get that feeling out of me."
Avedon at Work in the American
pages, 110 duotones, hardcover $39.95.
Texas Press, 2003.
Avedon at Work in the American West
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