FORT WORTH, Texas—The Amon Carter Museum of American Art presents Avedon in Texas: Selections from In the American West on view February 25–July 2, 2017. The exhibition features 17 of the portraits Richard Avedon (1923–2004) made in Texas for the groundbreaking project In the American West, commissioned by the Amon Carter in 1978 and originally exhibited in 1985. For the first time since 2005, the museum will display a selection of the powerful, striking photographs from this iconic body of work. Admission is free.
“These large photographs are as vivid, compelling and challenging today as they were more than 30 years ago,” says John Rohrbach, senior curator of photographs. “Avedon’s oversize prints demand engagement. His sitters induce us to confront our own humanity. One cannot walk away from this exhibition unmoved.”
Avedon did not know what to expect when he accepted the Amon Carter’s commission to depict the contemporary American West. He knew he would follow his standard practice of placing his sitters before a white paper backdrop facing his 8-by-10-inch Deardorff view camera. But he was more accustomed to photographing people who wanted their portraits made—models, powerbrokers and celebrities. Coaxing complete strangers into submitting to his lens would be different. Avedon warned the museum’s director, Mitchell Wilder, that he did not intend to glorify the West. He also cautioned that if he did not like the portraits he was getting, he would end the project. Wilder accepted these qualifications, trusting that something important would happen. In March 1979, Avedon and his assistants flew into Dallas for a test run at the annual Rattlesnake Roundup taking place 200 miles west in Sweetwater, Texas.
While the photographer’s assistants set up the backdrop on a shady side of the Sweetwater Coliseum, Avedon and his travel guide, photographer Laura Wilson, wandered the crowd looking for prospective sitters. Not everyone they approached agreed to be photographed, but those who did—including a factory worker and her niece, a farmer and a law enforcement student—could not help but take the invitation seriously. They did not know who this short, shaggy-haired photographer was, but it was easy to get caught up by his engaging intensity.
The trip to Sweetwater was successful beyond everyone’s hopes. Six powerful portraits from that weekend set the tone and standard for six more years of photographing from Texas to Montana. Avedon traveled through 13 states and 189 towns, conducting 752 sittings and exposing 17,000 sheets of film. Focusing on the rural West, he 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, Avedon sought out people whose appearances and life circumstances were the antithesis of the mythical images of the West; the subjects he chose were ordinary people, coping daily with personal cycles of boom and bust. Over those years, Avedon built a vision of the West through “people who are surprising—heartbreaking—or beautiful in a terrifying way,” the artist said, “beauty that might scare you to death until you acknowledge it as part of yourself.”
The 1985 exhibition of In the American West at the Amon Carter was controversial. The 124 portraits on display projected neither the heroic West of Hollywood nor the celebration of community leaders that locals expected and wanted to see. Yet the emotive power of the large-scale photographs of drifters, laborers and housewives was undeniable, and soon lines were running out the front door. The show and its accompanying book helped put the museum on the global cultural map, and over time the portraits have become widely recognized and appreciated touchstones in photographic history.
In conjunction with the exhibition, the Amon Carter is selling the 20th anniversary edition (2005) of the book In the American West, which is the same size as the original 1985 publication and reproduces all the same images. The hardcover is $250 (184 pages), and the softcover is $125 (174 pages).
Rohrbach will give a free gallery talk about the exhibition on March 23 at 6:30 p.m.