Sharp images of an unromantic West

THESE are not just pictures at an exhibition. Ten rooms with life-size portraits of grimy coal miners, slaughterhouse workers, drifters, carnies, ranch hands, and other faces of the working West are the subject of the latest flap to hit the what-is-art world of portrait photography.

So detailed are these soiled shirts, these windblown, furrowed, and unshaven faces, that you can see, reflected in the subjects' solemn eyes, the man behind the camera and in the eye of the controversy. That's him with the slickly coiffed hair, horn-rimmed glasses, and the double-breasted suit. The name is Richard Avedon, and yes, he's the fashion photographer who shoots Brooke Shields in bathing suits, Nastassja Kinski hugging a python, and celebrities leaping through the air.

So why an exhibit in Fort Worth, Texas (to tour five American cities in coming years), a simultaneous coffee-table book, and five years of focusing a turn-of-the-century view camera on the working-class West?

``I've been working on a portrait of America for 30 years, much in the way August Sander spent his life photographing Germany,'' Mr. Avedon said in an interview in Boston. Avedon, who was born and trained in New York and works mostly in that city, is continually miffed that he is better known for his commercial fashion work than his fine-art photography. He was voted one of the world's 10 greatest photographers by Popular Photography magazine in 1958. Of his six books published since 1945, five are of p ortraits; only one is on fashion. ``I knew my portrait would not be complete without the working class.''

Fifteen years ago he said he didn't know what it meant to be a coal miner, a trucker, or a rancher and didn't think he could photograph what he didn't understand. A stint in Montana to regain strength after an illness 10 years ago changed that.

``It was just this rancher, his wife, 900 head of cattle, and myself,'' Avedon says. ``He was up before dawn, never returned until after dark -- all the while keeping watch over me like he did his cattle.'' It was a certain, wonderfully refined sensibility, says Avedon, that led him to want to meet the rancher's cowboy friends and others in town (Ennis, Mont.).

``I found I wanted to photograph them, and when I did, I found that we had everything that mattered in common -- our children, other people we loved and were responsible for, very common aspirations . . . .'' He also found that the mythology of the West was in dire contradiction to its reality.

``Nothing about Montana had anything to do with the West I grew up with, which was the West of Gary Cooper and John Wayne, of Marlboro men, Willa Cather, Louis L'Amour. It was more closely associated with [short-story writer] Raymond Carver and [playwright] Sam Shepard. That's what I saw. There was nothing romantic about being a cowboy.''

Freed by these realizations to begin the project (eventually underwritten by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth), Avedon spent the summers from 1979 to 1984 touring Jaycees' rattlesnake roundups, rodeos, slaughterhouses, oil fields, truck stops, and stockyards from Sweetwater, Texas, to Calgary, Alberta. He held 752 sittings, shot 17,000 sheets of film -- always looking for the unsung, uncelebrated, ignored, or overlooked.

``Not since the dust bowl years have we looked at these faces,'' he says, ``those who bring us our uranium, wood, coal, and meat.''

The 122 photographs he chose for the exhibition are human size, but larger than life and in needle-sharp detail so graphic that the figures veritably leap off the wall from ghostly white backgrounds. Sweaty cowboy shirts, bloody smocks, sullied faces, and sullied expressions are the order of the day.

``More often than not the person wanted to clean up for the photograph,'' says Avedon. ``Until I convinced them the reality of their work was what I was after.''

Avedon scouted an area -- be it carnival or oil field -- until he saw those most compelling to photograph. He also observed their gestures. ``Once in front of the camera, they would be startled when I asked them to repeat that gesture which was unconscious to them but very telling to the rest of us.''

Each engraving is accompanied by the person's name and occupation (``Charlene Van Tighem, physical therapist''; ``T. Waldron, J. College, rodeo couple''). One picture is of a miner covered with soot, taken outside a bathhouse after all his friends had gone.

``As I clicked the shutter a tear came out of his eye,'' Avedon recounts. ``He said, `I'm sorry,' and I said, `That's OK,' and the tear dried up, and when photo session was over he said: `I like it down there.' I asked why. And he said, `'Cause no one can get to me.' ''

If there is one observation -- criticism, in many eyes -- that has surfaced more than any other, it is the near-deadpan stare from practically every subject. All are standing directly in front of the camera, arms at sides, with a very stylized, some say ``affected,'' use of cropping -- arms, legs, hips, even faces: ``Unrelievedly fixed mugs,'' one critic says. ``Too predictable,'' says another. ``Documents not the West, but himself [Avedon],'' says a third.

``I didn't tell these people not to smile,'' Avedon retorts; he says he rather went about his work seriously, ``like in the Victorian days of [Mathew] Brady and [Louis Jacques Mand'e] Daguerre when portrait taking was serious business and nobody smiled.'' He says he disdains the idea of a portrait as an idealized, cosmetic enterprise that can gloss over the true dignity of the person being photographed.

``It's heartbreaking for me to see women over 55 with teased, sprayed hair over-made-up to look like they're 40. There is great dignity at any age.''

He says that when his family dressed up for portraits in his youth, it did what every American family still does. ``We wore Sunday-best dress, borrowed cars and dogs for the snapshot, and wore pasted smiles,'' he says. ``All the snapshots are happy, rich -- we look wonderful. Well, I know that wasn't the truth of my family on any level.''

Later he says, ``If I'm part of moving portraiture forward, the only thing I would hope for is that I can tell it like it is.''

``Avedon's portraits are unflinchingly unidealizing,'' says the William Parker, a professor of photographic history at the University of Connecticut. ``Unlike someone like [Ottawa photographer Yousuf] Karsh, who always portrays a subject as an ideal, Avedon's brought us back to a whole tradition of interest in attitudes, moods, physiognomies, and expressions that has been neglected for 50, maybe 100, years.''

Dr. Parker says photographers such as Helen Leavitt, Ernst Haas, Alfred Stieglitz, Edward Steichen, Paul Strand, and Edward Weston have all done great portraiture, but what sets Avedon apart is his commitment to ``an interest in the inner nature of his subjects that hasn't appeared among his contemporaries.'' As such, Dr. Parker says Avedon is deservedly recognized as one of the most influential fine-art photographers of the century.

The other criticism most often leveled at the new Avedon show is that the photographs in no way represent a cross section of Western life, either in subject matter or in breadth of emotion represented.

``Don't confuse me with a photojournalist,'' says Avedon. ``I don't think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne. The title is `In the American West,' not `The American West.' ''

He speaks compassionately of the subjects of his photos. He has befriended some and received positive letters from many, five of whom took part in a question-and-answer seminar after the opening of the exhibit.

``I told each subject they would receive a print of themselves, if I used it, and a copy of the book. Otherwise, they'd only be out 20 minutes of time.'' He said he and his crew often helped the drifters they photographed by taking them to nearby restaurants or aiding in transportation.

``There is a very serious moral issue at stake,'' Avedon says. ``It has to do with using people and making what one hopes is a responsible comment or portrait to them, to the human situation, and to myself and my own view of it.''

Granted, he says, there is much of himself as the artist in his work.

``You don't hear that complaint against the Impressionists,'' he says. ``The moment an emotion or fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate; none of them is the truth.''

How best should someone confront the portraits in the show or the book?

``I would like you to pay attention to the people in the book and to try to find yourself in them -- or your uncle or father or someone you know. I want you to say there is part of me in this person. I've failed if you can't make that connection.''

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