Coffee should be on its way. We should be at about 30,000 feet more or less. It’s real warm right now, which feels awkward seeing how they were de-icing the wings just a few minutes ago, as a child looks outside.
The West. Headed to the American West. New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, Utah. Those states thare are so popular in the movies, series, books, music. The popular culture that is.
“34,000 feet” the captain says. A little bit of turbulence is behind us, and only the West, waking up to its first light, ahead of us.
This time it’s my wife and I. I’ve been there before, with my family when I was real young, and then with two friends after graduating from college traveling on the Route 66 from Chicago to Santa Monica. I have memories which I sometimes have difficulty discerning between what I saw with my eyes, and what I saw in movies.
Either, both, regardless. They are vivid, colorful, extraordinary, breathtaking.
Coffee still hasn’t made its way to my tray, but having online Wi-Fi and listening to the 70s Road Trip on Spotify is just putting me in the mood to write, share, discover through photography. Fleetwood Mac, Dreams is on. Close to the clouds, tarmac waiting for us below. Perfect.
Road Trips, the ultimate way to travel the States. To reminisce on those famous Jack Kerouac days, the Beat Generation. The Greyhounds, all shining in the desert sun. A tin can on wheels. You see? I’ve only really seen that bus in the movies. But I can’t wait to “see” it when we get on the road again.
Avenues. Many of them. Road, train, bus, car, feet, plane. This time it’s the plane. Through the invisible highway in the sky we are headed west, on West Ave.
‘Ave’ though doesn’t only stand for Avenue. In this case it stands for Avedon. Richard Avedon.
The coffee is closer! It smells just like the small cafe’ I usually write from. Just kidding. It smells like another tin can loaded with people and the coffee smell is like one of those bad air-fresheners people put to try to hide the smell in their cars.
Last week I wrote about shooting portraits in the street, in Street Style, and how asking permission, engaging with the subject, and safety, may all have been reasons to pursue that option. But in doing the usual reading and researching I found Richard Avedon’s portrait, and yes, you guessed it, of the American West. That’s what he called his project, and book, as well, In the American West.
Portraits are not my absolute favorite types of photos, but Avedon’s are. At least the ones in the project American West.
“No thank you, I replied”. After the polite cabin crew gentleman asked me if I wanted anything to eat.
Coffee should be right behind.
If coffee was a plantation of the West we would see coffee plantation workers in Avedon’s work as well. Cowboys, working class, non-working class, just class, no class, doesn’t matter class. That’s who he photographed. He photographed reality. But would also say “All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth”. So I’ll stick to using ‘reality’ instead.
Born in New York, in 1923, Richard Avedon was famous for his portraits, fashion, magazine cover work. One day I’ll look into those a little more as well, as a quick glance at his images does indeed show his brilliance. But today I want to focus on the American West.
Coffee!!! Finally. Boy is it bad.
Avedon travelled to more than a dozen States, shot 17,000 frames and 750 subjects over 6 years, between 1979 and 1984. Want to talk about a long term project? Want to compare commitment levels?
Here is the first one that captured me.
A young boy, who is skinning a snake. A rattle snake. Overalls, logoless attire, half a rattle snake in his hands, and the snake’s guts hanging out. To dry? A stern look, almost threatening. The snake’s skin pattern, drawing the eye from the left to the right in a u-shaped way.
It’s up close, intimate. Head slightly cut off – but who cares? Too much, too little? Does it matter is the real question. If the answer is yes, then the composition should have been different. For me, it doesn’t, so I think it’s just perfect.
Let’s go to this one.
Who is she? “Summer breaze, makes me feel fine…” sings Seal and Crofts. You think she feels the same?
The left eye lower than the right. Eyelid makeup shouting out “look at me”. Hair done. No bra, no plastic surgery. Las Vegas is miles away. But is this not reality? Is this not the American West? Or are we supposed to believe that it is only Marlboro smoking cowboys, beautiful horses, endless desert, colors beyond belief?
And what if we removed all that? What if, if we took away the background, and replaced it with a blank white canvas? Would that make the subject pop more? Does the background help or distract from showing the American West through portraits?
I can certainly imagine all of the subjects in their context. The rattle snake skinner in his workshop, the lady as a cashier some at a gas station.
Or this gentleman working the oil field?
But what if the story was in what was missing? The imagination within the white space? We can flip the pages and with the blank, pale, background, draw in the barns, or whatever else we may see. We can see the barbed wire to keep the cattle from running. We can see a border that divides the Americas. People crossing the border, in search of a better life.
Off centered. Limbs cut off. To create that uneasiness in imperfection? To show that reality is not staged?
The bee whisperer. Pale skin on a white background, with natural shade light which hopefully eases the bees as well. The contrast is in the black and white, in the colors, or lack there of aside from the black bees. The lighting, as Avedon says, has to be invisible. There is just enough to distance the gentlemen from the background, but there are no hard shadows on his face, especially around his nose.
Second cup of coffee. Needed a little boost after getting on this early flight.
Not him. This young fella probably is a Cowboy. There goes the popular culture again. Maybe not. Maybe he’s a cook! But let’s just imagine him as a cowboy. I mean, in the end, there is nothing in the back to show that he isn’t. All we see is his freckles.
Much like hers. Chosen as the “cover girl” for his book.
To give an idea of what the behind the scenes looked like, here are two photographs of Richard Avedon photographing his subjects.
And last of all, through his 8 x 10 Deardorff view camera he could create enormous, live size prints. His exhibitions were therefore staggering feats of precision work. They also all carefully show the black border of the negative.
But the one thing, above all, that I absolutely love about his project, is that his subjects are not smiling. I read from an article that they can be compared to mug shots. I’m not sure I had the same reaction when I first saw these photos. I felt more like I was intruding their space.
My first reaction was they’re thinking, “what are you looking at?” That’s what their faces, posture, luminosity, and expressions, conveyed. They were in control, not me, not Avedon.
And that I think is above all else what sets these portraits apart from the others that I generally appreciate technically rather than emotionally.
“You get me?” I imagine him asking.
“More coffee?” Yes, please. As I stare outside.
Until Next Time,