Richard Avedon, Charlene Van Tighem, physical therapist, Augusta, Montana, June 26, 1983, printed 1984-85. Gelatin silver print, 81 3/4 x 66 1/2 inches (207.6 x 168.9 cm). © The Richard Avedon Foundation. (Courtesy: Gagosian).

In 1978 famed fashion photographer Richard Avedon was commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum of American Art in Fort Worth to shoot a series of portraits in the Western part of the country. The ten portraits that were part of “In the American West,” the original exhibit that debuted in 1985, are now on view at the Gagosian Gallery in Beverly Hills. This is the first time these large scale works are shown together since then.

What: Richard Avedon: Ten Exhibition Prints from ‘In the American West’

When: November 4-December 18, 2021

Where: 456 North Camden Drive, Beverly Hills, CA

Richard Avedon, Juan Patricio Lobato, carney, Rocky Ford, Colorado August 23, 1980, printed 1984-85. Gelatin silver print, 81 3/4 x 66 3/4 inches (207.6 x 169.5 cm). © The Richard Avedon Foundation. (Courtesy: Gagosian).

The series of black-and-white photos were shot over five years as Avedon traveled in the West, taking portraits of thousands of subjects. The photographs capture everyday people in their natural element, without much flair — a departure from the photographer’s usual style, familiar from the pages of big-time fashion magazines, such as VogueHarper’s Bazaar, and seen in campaigns for designers like Dior and Calvin Klein. The photos were striking yet simple, shot against a white seamless background, which allowed the photographer to concentrate on the subject and the subject alone, capturing their emotions, expressions, and body posture. When questioned about this deviation from his typical style, Avedon had a poignant answer. “It’s trivializing to make someone look ‘sage,’ ‘noble,’ or even conventionally beautiful when the real thing is so much crazier, contradictory, and therefore fascinating.”

The original exhibit featured 125 photos. From that 125, ten images were selected to be printed at a staggering seven feet height. A wide range of subjects: from a 13-year-old rattlesnake skinner and a middle-aged truck driver,  to a young oil field worker, female factory worker on her birthday, and  a lumber salesman with his toddler daughter — all depicted as they are going about their busy, regular day, in the West in the early 1980s. 

Many have considered these portraits as some of Avedon’s most powerful, similarly to his famous photo of a beekeeper that the photographer spent years chasing after — a portrait of great acclaim and yet another departure from the high-fashion style images he is mostly known for.

Avedon knew how to bring a photo and subject alive. Even in his fashion photography he realized that his images took on a more significant role than simply a selling tool for the fashion his models wore on the pages of magazines and ads. Instead, he worked with understanding that his task was to capture a spirit and to invoke energy and vigor; all things that the consumers possibly needed more than the goods they were compelled to buy.