In the American West

In 1979, Carter director Mitchell A. Wilder commissioned fashion and portrait photographer Richard Avedon to capture his view of the American West. Intrigued by the challenge, Avedon spent the next six years, from 1979 to 1984, traveling to 189 towns in 17 states—Arizona, California, Colorado, Idaho, Iowa, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming—and even up into Canada. He conducted 752 sittings, exposing 17,000 sheets of film through his large-format view camera. But instead of the celebrities, models, and politicians he usually photographed, Avedon’s subjects were everyday people, many of whom were dealing with hardship. His signature style posed them against a seamless white backdrop that removed any reference to place, focusing instead on the individuality of each person.

In the American West was published and exhibited at the Carter in 1985. Avedon’s dramatically large portraits, some up to 4 feet tall and 11 feet long, shocked visitors with their stark detail, emphasizing the westerners’ trials, but also their determination and humanity. Two generations later, the 124 photographs of In the American West remain some of the most important and influential portraits of the 20th century.

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