To produce In the American West, Avedon spent five years journeying through twenty-one western states, photographing more than a thousand people as they went about their daily lives. For the original exhibition he selected 125 images from the thousands taken and chose just ten to print at a monumental scale—larger than the oversize editioned work. Avoiding the landscape imagery that had defined the West in earlier photography—and in the popular imagination—he decided to present the region through images of its inhabitants. The result is a key achievement within Avedon’s oeuvre and a defining moment for contemporary portraiture.
In the American West represents a remarkable departure from the subjects Avedon was photographing concurrently for Vogue, and for brands such as Calvin Klein and Dior, relating more directly to those he focused on during the civil rights era for the book Nothing Personal (1964), a collaboration with James Baldwin. Using an 8 x 10 Deardorff field camera positioned close to his subjects, Avedon employed natural light and a seamless white backdrop to emphasize his sitters’ features, poses, and expressions. Pictured alone or in groups of two or three, the individuals he documented are identified by name, age, and profession, and include coal miners, oil field workers, and drifters—ordinary people presented with striking immediacy.
In the American West avoids both visual cliché and conventional idealization to achieve an arresting quality. Replying to the sometimes outraged responses elicited by this daring project, Avedon claimed, “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 larger-than-life scale of the prints on view in Beverly Hills contributes to their considerable visual presence and implicitly declares the humanity of their subjects. Powerfully realized, these images of specific personalities were also enormously influential on subsequent portrait photography.