One of the most celebrated fashion and portrait photographers of his generation, Richard Avedon’s expansive oeuvre has influenced and defined images of beauty, style and culture, from the wake of World War II to the first years of the new millennium. Avedon conceived pictures that, while deeply embedded in the tradition of photography, pushed the discipline’s confinements to new frontiers. For his celebrated portraits, this meant Avedon established a distinctly minimalist style that utilized clothes, gestures, and above all facial expressions to produce elegant yet gritty works that captured the true personality and soul of his subjects.
No project illustrates this signature style better than his masterpiece series, In the American West. Agreeing to a proposal set forth by Mitchell A. Wilder, the first director of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, Avedon began what would be a six year journey to photograph the West under the patronage of the museum. In total, the photographer documented the people of the region extensively, traveling through thirteen states and 189 towns where he completed 752 portrait sessions and exposed over 17,000 sheets of film on his 8-by-10 inch camera.
The present lot is an exemplary image from the project that gives us a glimpse into the careful selection and shaping of vision that Avedon produced for the project. Contrary to many other photographers whose captured images of the same region, Avedon directly ignored the landscape of the West, replacing it instead with portraits of the people who lived there.While he did focus on the typical rural areas, visiting ranches and farms, Avedon also sought out sitters in more modern and ordinary places like truck stops, oil fields, slaughterhouses, and coal mines. From the looks of Tom Stroud, it’s easy to tell that he is a hard laborer, covered in oil and dirt that Avedon has reproduced in deep inky blacks and still wearing his protective headgear as is he has just stepped off the work site. Like almost all of Avedon’s sitters, he bears no signal of a smile, implying a worn-down, grim attitude – a stark departure from the prevailing conventions of both portraiture and photographs of the West in the 1980s.
After premiering at the Amon Carter in 1985, the final 124 portraits from In the American West traveled around the country and were commemorated in book form. The larger than life-size prints of Avedon’s work generated extensive discussion about the nature of portraiture, photography, and dominant stereotypes of the West at the time, having such a lasting impact that they continue to spark debate to this day. Standing the test of time, Tom Stroud and the whole of In the American West remain desirable masterpieces of Avedon’s career.