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In the American West: Richard Avedon
Richard Avedon (1923–2004), Allen Silvy, drifter, Route 93, Chloride, Nevada, 12/14/80. © 1980, Estate of Richard Avedon. Courtesy Amon Carter Museum

FORT WORTH, TEXAS.-In 1985, the Amon Carter Museum presented In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon. It opened to widespread acclaim and was one of the most highly attended exhibitions in the museum’s history. Assertive, controversial, and graphically striking, the portraits in the exhibition generated extensive and at times heated discussion about the nature of portraiture, photography and the true identity of the American West. Avedon’s oversize portraits of working class westerners have become icons in photographic history, and the project still stands as a definitive expression of the power of photographic art.

“The extraordinary images by Avedon for this project have become justifiably famous,” said Amon Carter Museum Director Rick Stewart. “Seeing them in reproduction is not enough; you have to confront them directly, on the walls, to realize their overwhelming power and exquisite quality.”

Now, the Carter again presents a major portion of the works from In the American West, selected by Avedon together with Amon Carter Museum Senior Curator of Photographs John Rohrbach, to mark its twentieth anniversary of the original exhibition.

Background of the 1985 Exhibition - In the American West was the brainchild of the Amon Carter Museum ’s first director, Mitchell A. Wilder. Richard Avedon had become world famous for elevating fashion photography to an art form. But when Wilder saw Avedon’s July 4, 1978, portrait of a ranch foreman from Ennis, Mont., he asked the artist to continue making photographs of that type under the sponsorship of the Amon Carter Museum . He gave the photographer free license to photograph his view of the American West.

Avedon agreed to Wilder’s proposal. From 1979 to 1984, he traveled through 13 states and 189 towns from Texas to Idaho, conducting 752 sittings and exposing 17,000 sheets of film through his 8-by-10-inch Deardorff view camera.

Focusing on the rural West, Avedon visited ranches and rodeos, but he also went to truck stops, oil fields, and slaughterhouses. Rather than playing to the western myths of grandeur and space, he sought out people whose appearance and life circumstances were the antithesis of mythical images of the ruggedly handsome cowboy, beautiful pioneer wife, dashing outdoor adventurer, or industry mogul. The subjects he chose for the portraits were more ordinary people, coping daily with personal cycles of boom and bust.

Instead of glamorizing these figures, he brought their various human frailties to the forefront. All of them were pictured against a seamless white backdrop that removed any reference to place, and many of the portraits were dramatically oversize, shocking in their stark detail. Visitors to the exhibition in 1985 came face-to-face with images that shattered stereotypes of a glorified region.

Twenty Years Later - Although small groups of prints from In the American West have been periodically exhibited since 1985, including by Avedon himself for his retrospective exhibitions, a larger portion of the project has not been seen in the United States since its initial tour. Seventy-eight of the original 124 portraits will be on view in this exhibition, including all of the project’s most important and best-known images.

Rohrbach began working with Avedon in early 2003 on image selection and installation design. Following Avedon’s death on October 1, 2004, Rohrbach has continued to work with The Richard Avedon Foundation to ensure that the photographer’s initial vision is preserved for a new generation of visitors.

“These large photographs are as vivid, compelling and challenging today as they were 20 years ago,” said Rohrbach. “By refusing to play to romantic stereotype, Avedon has drawn important attention to the hardships that often attend life amidst the West’s wide spaces. His oversize prints demand engagement. His sitters induce us to confront our own humanity. One cannot walk away from this show unmoved.”

The New York publisher Harry N. Abrams Inc. will reissue the exhibition catalogue with a new introductory preface by Rohrbach.

On view in the Carter’s photography galleries concurrently with In the American West will be Avedon at Work: Photographs by Laura Wilson. The photographs Wilson made during the summers of 1979–84 when she assisted Avedon offer an insider’s look at the artist creating the portraits and provide an extraordinary context in which to view In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon.

In the American West: Photographs by Richard Avedon is organized by the Amon Carter Museum, Fort Worth, Texas . Generous funding for the exhibition is provided by the Katrine M. Deakins and Crystelle Waggoner Charitable Trusts, Bank of America.

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