Both men are wearing long-sleeved, collared shirts and jeans, standing on the same ranch in Montana on the same day at the same time. But in many ways they couldn't be farther apart. One is Richard Wheatcroft, a rancher, who's been running the family business since he found his father crushed to death under a tractor. The other is Richard Avedon, famed fashion and portrait photographer, who left behind the bright lights and big city to shoot "real" dwellers of the American West during a commission for the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth that became In the American West. Wheatcroft's shirt is Western-style, ripped and stained--much like his jeans--from hard work on the land, not part of the tattered look so popular now. Avedon's clothes are clean, stylish, fitted--Carson Kressley would have no objections to his wardrobe. Wheatcroft is wearing a cowboy hat with a brim nearly as wide as his shoulders; Avedon has on his signature black-rimmed glasses, almost as outsized as the other's hat.
Avedon photographed Wheatcroft four times over six years beginning in 1981 when the rancher was only 24. You watch him age: chubby cheeks thin out and turn creased and leathery, a defiant stare becomes downtrodden. His girlfriend becomes his wife, the mother of his children and then his ex-wife, we learn after Avedon returns to Montana for a 2003 photo shoot that finds Wheatcroft aged seemingly 30 years in barely half that time. Wheatcroft was only one person photographed during the project, which took Avedon and three assistants (including Laura Wilson, who documented the entire project) to 13 states and 189 towns to do 752 sittings and use 17,000 sheets of film. But Wheatcroft stands out because we see him again and again.
Avedon's In the American West, which premiered at the Amon Carter in 1985 and returns this Saturday for a 20th anniversary exhibition, challenged the idea of the glory and heroism of the West. There were no majestic landscapes of rolling plains or red-rocked caverns. There were no cowboys breaking bucking broncos or Native Americans in traditional dress. There was a person standing in front of a white sheet under regular light in his or her regular clothes. There were oil workers covered in black gold, coal miners covered in black dust and slaughterhouse employees covered in blood. There were women with overplucked eyebrows and frizzy hair, dirty kids in tattered clothes, rail-thin drifters, prisoners with religious tattoos and patients from mental institutions. The photographs of them were printed life-sized, so viewers stood eye-to-eye with Avedon's subjects. And some museum patrons didn't like them. They were too real, too honest. People called them ugly, and some said Avedon was brutal and took advantage of people. Others praised the reality, the sympathy, the chance to look at people very different--and be allowed to stare and study.
The photos from In the American West are so well-known now that the reactions are likely to be less passionate this time around. But a companion exhibit places them in another context. Laura Wilson: Avedon at Work is a collection of photos Wilson took of Avedon during the five years the team spent on the project--from Avedon interacting with his subjects during shoots to personal moments such as two-step lessons given by a cowboy and his girlfriend in their tiled kitchen. Through photos, letters to and from Avedon and Wilson's notes, viewers learn the stories the faces alone couldn't tell.