« Return to this article

Know the West

Avedon at Work in the American West

  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.

Wilson says 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.

Richard 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 West
Laura Wilson
132 pages, 110 duotones, hardcover $39.95.
University of Texas Press, 2003.