Editor’s note: In 2005, the Star-Telegram sent reporter Andrew Marton and photographer Jill Johnson on the road to interview and re-photograph some of the Texas residents who appeared in Richard Avedon’s groundbreaking photography project “In the American West.” The Amon Carter Museum of American Art was exhibiting Avedon’s work that year upon the project’s 20th anniversary. Twelve years later, the Carter is bringing back selections from “In the American West,” and today we are dusting off our former staffers’ award-winning work, too. The photos and stories that appear here are included in the Carter’s current offering.
Texas was just one stop along the way.
In all, photographer Richard Avedon canvassed 15 states from 1979 to 1984 on his landmark tour of the West. The resulting body of work — an extraordinary collection of images that stared into the soul of the working class and came to be known as “In the American West” — was even bigger than the Lone Star State.
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Still, 18 of the portfolio’s most starkly beautiful portraits were of our neighbors. On the occasion of the 20th anniversary of “In the American West” — and its return to the Amon Carter Museum, which commissioned and first exhibited it — the Star-Telegram sought to track down those homegrown miners and farmers and factory workers whose lives, unglamorous by every other measure, were illuminated, touched and irreversibly changed by a chance encounter with a New Yorker and his camera.
Here are some of their stories.
Billy Mudd, 59, trucker
Photographed by the Star-Telegram, Aug. 16, 2005
With the last wisps of summer still lingering on a September day in 1985, Billy Mudd and his wife, Jeane, were strolling toward the majestic entrance of the Amon Carter Museum. “Just look up,” Jeane said to her husband, “but don’t say a word.”
There looming in front of the then-39-year-old truck driver was Richard Avedon’s portrait of him — flood-lit, stark and star ing at him like some invasive X-ray.
It shook Mudd to his core.
“When I looked up and seen that life-sized picture looking back at me, it was the very first time I had really seen myself,” Mudd now recalls about the opening day of Avedon’s “In the American West” exhibition at the Carter. “It felt like I had left my body, that I had died, and my spirit was looking at the photograph. My heart skipped a beat; I got weak all over.”
Mudd’s visceral first encounter with Avedon’s unsparingly detailed, forensiclike image would prove to be so much more than a casual intersection of art with its subject. It detonated a cluster bomb of emotion; it was catharsis and epiphany rolled into one.
“Richard’s photograph just hit me,” admits Mudd, whose reticence suddenly gives way to a torrent of emotion and words. “This man’s photograph showed me who I was: a lonesome person, a depressed person. He really introduced me to myself and that changed everything in my life.
“His photo saw through me,” Mudd continues. “I used to be a workaholic, never spending too much time with my wife or thinking about life. I was just a nobody. I even thought about suicide. But Richard woke me up. He got me to straighten up and realize that I ain’t who I am in that photo.”
This man’s photograph showed me who I was: a lonesome person, a depressed person. He really introduced me to myself and that changed everything in my life.
If Mudd sounds born-again, he won’t deny it. But what he will also make doubly clear is that it wasn’t some parish minister who helped refurbish his frame of mind. Rather, his spiritual renovation came through the lens of Avedon’s camera — and the resulting photo and relationship with Avedon himself all but implored Mudd to infuse his days with meaning.
“I really owe my life to Richard,” says Mudd, who relishes cataloging the ways in which their unlikely bond brightened his once glum existence. “Richard so opened up life for me. When I go down the road now, I really hear the birds sing. Everything has some beauty, and I never used to look at a world with beauty.”
Today, the 59-year-old Mudd, father of six, grandfather to 15 and great-grandfather to seven, recognizes how whimsical destiny placed him on a path to meet Avedon back in May 1981. Then 35 years old, Mudd had temporarily snagged a job on an oil rig in Alto. Six months into his job, he was singled out to have his picture taken by Avedon — someone Mudd thought worked for an oil field magazine.
“I remember asking Richard if I should put on a shirt, and he said, ‘No, just stay like you are,’ so I just stepped over in front of the camera and stood like I always stand,” recalls Mudd.
It would be four years later, during the opening of the Carter exhibition, that Avedon and Mudd would launch their lifelong friendship. Theirs was as close a camaraderie as one could imagine between an anonymous Texas trucker and a worldly photographer.
“From the moment I met Richard, we just clicked, as if we’d known each other all of our lives,” says Mudd, who remembers with a laugh how he and his wife had to stop at a Fort Worth Target for some suitable clothes before attending the opening.
“Me and Richard had so much fun, just carrying on,” recalls Mudd, who was shattered by Avedon’s death a year ago, at 81. “He was just this really down-to-earth person; always happy-go-lucky. He became closer to me than a brother could ever have been.”
From the time Billy Mudd was born, in 1945, just outside of Houston in the little town of East Bernard, he literally and spiritually drove thousands of miles to get to his crucial encounter with Avedon. Mudd’s father worked for Tennessee Gas, doing pipeline inspection. Curtly, Mudd says that he and his father were “not close.” In fact, so estranged was Mudd from his parents and only brother that by 5 he was being raised by his grandparents on a ranch 250 miles away in Medina.
On 2,800 acres, Mudd cleared land, built fences and tended cattle and sheep. By the time he was 12, he was in charge of breaking most of his family’s wild mustangs, turning them into much-desired cutting horses.
Mudd dropped out of school at 16. “From when I was big enough,” he now says, “I did what I wanted to do when I wanted to do it.” At 19, he took to the highway as a trucker for the first time.
“I always liked it because nobody bothers you out here,” Mudd says, calling from his rig somewhere in New Mexico. “I’m a whole lot of a loner.”
But soon Mudd, a Marlboro man of craggy individualism, would meet the woman of his dreams, Jeane Ellen Salter, on the road between San Antonio and Houston, in Gonzales. And as Mudd eased into his newfound role as provider to a fast-growing family, Avedon would provide inspiration.
“Richard reminded Billy how much of a family man he was, pushing him to be even more of one,” Jeane recalls. “He got Billy more confident in life, more positive about moving on with whatever it is he wanted to do.”
If anything, the trucker, who still crisscrosses the country with abandon, seems more enthused now over his road-warrior experiences than when Avedon first immortalized him 24 years ago. Encounter Mudd today and his 6-foot-2-inch frame unfolds with the same combination of aw-shucks lankiness and hips-cocked defiance displayed in his portrait. He remains an inspired assemblage of spare parts, his widow’s peak pointing down to arresting ice-blue eyes, with little crow’s-feet scampering away in fear of those piercing orbs. His endless arms are graced with articulate, heroic hands that could have been borrowed from Michelangelo’s David.
Though not an overtly religious man, Mudd does confess that “me and God have had a lot of talks while I’m sitting behind this wheel. And now I talk to Richard, because I feel his presence. I have so much I didn’t get to tell him about the ways my life has changed. I never really could thank him the way I would have liked to.”
Now brimming with delight in the simplest pleasures, Mudd has set his own compass, even for his final journey.
“When the good Lord is ready for me,” he says, “I hope Richard is standing alongside my grandparents just past those pearly gates.”
Rita Carl, 56, retired social services officer
Photographed by the Star-Telegram, Sept. 2, 2005
The product of a Mexican-American father and a German-American mother, Rita Carl cuts quite the Scarlett O’Hara figure residing in Sweetwater’s only multicolumned, porticoed, ersatz plantation mansion. Carl’s “Tara” shows off her deeply embedded roots in West Texas, where she grew up working the family farm, fishing and playing lots of cowboys and Indians. “I always wanted to be the cowboy and the hero,” Carl reminisces.
During a chilly March day in 1979, Carl was taking in the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup at the Nolan County Coliseum. The annual event — part carnival, part reptile rodeo and the source of Sweetwater’s renown — would prove to be a fertile hunting ground for Richard Avedon, who found several of his “American West” subjects there in one day.
Carl — who was 30 years old at the time and would soon travel to Los Angeles, and back, in pursuit of a law-enforcement career — remembers a salt-and-pepper-haired man with large glasses trailing her through the roundup, persistently requesting to take her picture.
Repeatedly, she turned Avedon down. Finally, several of Carl’s friends at the roundup all but dragged her back to Avedon’s photo encampment — a tranquil side of the coliseum that he’d rigged with his signature backdrop and beloved, if bulky, 8-by-10 Deardorff portrait camera.
“I trusted his intentions,” remembers Carl, “but I really wondered, ‘Who am I?’ I asked him, ‘Why have you chosen me?’ And he said, ‘Because you are very beautiful.’ He was just so full of compliments.”
I look at this picture and I remember that I just didn’t see myself as beautiful, like he was telling me. It sure did mean something special coming from him because he knew so many beautiful women and here I’m nobody.
During the shoot, Carl remembers being befuddled over what to do with her hands. She had no concerns about her hair. “I have to admit it looked good,” she says. “I think I all but invented that Farrah Fawcett flip look. But I was worried because it had been a long day and my makeup had almost melted off. But I thought that he’s such a famous photographer he’ll probably fix my blemishes, and I’ll be beautiful.”
In working with Carl, Avedon, as with all his subjects, cultivated an easygoing, comforting atmosphere. “His voice was very soothing and he made me feel totally at ease,” Carl recalls. “He had a lot of patience. Here he was, one of the most famous photographers in the world, and he was just a normal, friendly, polite person. I really felt like I could talk to him for hours. I really do think I was attracted to him. He was a very good-looking man, and I loved his real New York City accent. He just seemed exotic.”
Sitting in the living room of her alabaster-white home — one filled with an eccentric mix of estate-sale antiques, kitschy collectable plates (with scenes from “Gone With the Wind”), dozens of sepia-toned pictures of her family, a menagerie of 100-year-old and contemporary dolls, and a drawer full of Smith & Wessons and .44 Magnums — Carl considers how Avedon captured her likeness in the spring of 1979.
“I think it is a very good picture, though it does make me look like I’m mad,” she says. “I did wear a lot of makeup and those eyelashes back then. I would love to have taken the blemishes off. Otherwise it’s a great picture. I look at this picture and I remember that I just didn’t see myself as beautiful, like he was telling me. It sure did mean something special coming from him because he knew so many beautiful women and here I’m nobody. He treated me like I was a celebrity. It really did affect me.
“Looking at this picture today, I see myself, obviously, younger, and even though he shot so many pictures making us look like unhappy people, at the time I was not unhappy at all. I was in college, planning a big career with lots of possibilities and lots of plans. My life was going to be fantastic.”
John Harrison, 45, boat parts salesman Melissa Cameron, 24, receptionist
Photographed by the Star-Telegram, Aug. 29, 2005
Back in the fall of 1981, John Harrison was a 21-year-old father toiling in a lumber yard to support his young family, including his firstborn, a 7-month-old baby girl named Melissa.
On an October day, John, along with his wife, Cheryl, and their daughter, were strolling through the State Fair of Texas in Dallas when Richard Avedon’s assistant, Laura Wilson, asked them if they’d consent to have their picture taken.
“My first thought was that if he’s such a famous photographer, how much would it cost, since the fair always had all kinds of hucksters,” recalls Harrison.
Fully assured that the photo would be gratis, father and daughter began posing for Avedon, with Harrison cradling Melissa in a traditionally protective embrace.
I do know one thing by looking at that picture. I sure did love that little baby.
Seemingly content with what he got, Avedon began packing up when he noticed Harrison hoisting Melissa upside down, in a playful way that always got her to giggle.
“ ‘Hold on, hold on,’ I remember Richard saying, as he got his camera out again,” recalls Harrison. “ ‘That is what I’m looking for.’ ”
Avedon soon snapped several Polaroids to serve as memory guides for a future shoot with the Harrisons. Sure enough, the photographer visited them in their Lewisville home two months later. Once there, he asked John to dress in precisely the same light cotton shirt and grubby jeans, with Melissa in her tiny T-shirt and diaper — the original garb of their earlier State Fair session.
“Whenever I would hold Melissa upside down, she was giggling, and Avedon just liked the way it looked, the way she wasn’t afraid,” says Harrison from his Seabrook home, which is filled with a vast collection of Nativity scenes and where one wall is lined with Avedon images marking that special time. “We were doing it in just a playful way, and Avedon saw something in our relationship and that became the picture in his mind.”
As for Harrison’s thousand-yard stare in the picture, he now remembers that seriousness came naturally to him.
“I just didn’t smile much for family or other pictures — it was my look,” Harrison says. “So for me, Richard never had to tell me, ‘Don’t smile.’ ”
Harrison’s first impression of Avedon was that he carried a “real show-business look about him. He looked like a celebrity to me, like he was somebody, yet he somehow wasn’t pretentious.”
Looking back at the picture today, Melissa — now a married woman with shoulder-length chestnut hair who favors blue jeans, peasant blouses and flip-flops — can’t recall the actual photo session but has some memories of the 1985 Amon Carter exhibition.
Remembering how paternalistic Avedon was at the show’s splashy opening, Melissa muses: “He held me in his lap, helping me count my fingers and toes.”
Looking at the iconic shot today, Melissa blurts out: “Boy, I was a tall baby.” Then after a considerable pause to reflect on it, she admits: “It does look so sweet. She looks so trusting — I mean me. I just seem so content.”
Harrison’s gut reaction to the photo is a welter of impressions, some flip, others more carefully molded.
“What kind of hairdo exactly was that?” he wonders. “It really does seem like just a slice of time — one-60th of a second or however long it took to take that picture — and it is unrelated to anything else in my life.”
Except, perhaps, to his heart and soul. A particularly potent emotion resonates through Harrison as he relives that day more than two decades ago.
“I do know one thing by looking at that picture,” he says. “I sure did love that little baby.”
Boyd Fortin, 40, environmental specialist
Photographed by the Star-Telegram, Aug. 31, 2005
It doesn’t take much prompting for Boyd Fortin to conjure up youthful summers in Sweetwater, filled with baseball and his fervent involvement in raising stock-show-worthy pigs and hogs.
Fortin’s recollections of that Sweetwater day 26 years ago when Richard Avedon snapped his picture are just as vividly etched. At age 13, Fortin was already a Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup mainstay, having racked up four years in the festival’s infamous skinning pits, deftly chopping up the reptiles into bite-sized segments, readying them for frying and a hungry public.
On that brisk March day in 1979, Avedon was trawling the roundup for suitable subjects; Fortin was a natural.
“When he asked to take my picture, I said, ‘Sure you can,’ even though I didn’t know who he was,” recalls Fortin. “I also remember him saying, ‘I will make your picture famous,’ to which I replied, ‘Yeah, whatever.’ ”
Avedon led Fortin back to a white backdrop taped against a remote corner wall of the coliseum. Three times that weekend, Avedon would shoot Fortin.
“By his third session with me, I really wanted him to hurry up. The weather was in the upper 40s and my hands were getting so cold I was going to have problems skinning the rest of the snakes,” says Fortin.
Avedon experimented by posing both a smiling and scowling Fortin holding several snakes. Finally, Avedon arrived at a perfect expression and precise composition: one gutted snake held up by a brooding, frigid Fortin.
Part of the final image’s distinction is the artful arranging of the snake’s entrails, almost like a string of medals across Fortin’s adolescent torso.
“Avedon wasn’t squeamish at all,” Fortin remembers. “In fact, he was the one who made sure the snake guts would show even more, pulling them out and draping them. He also made sure I put that bloody apron back on. I think he really was going for the blood and guts.”
Taking in the picture today, Fortin — a father of two and rabid NASCAR fan who seems primed to skin another snake, clad in his blue jeans, leather belt and boots — can’t help but compare his first impressions of the photo to how he feels about it today.
“When I first saw my picture along with all the others,” he says, “I realized that Avedon’s vision of the West was not more of the cowboys, cattle and horses portrait in my mind — but rather he was after workers.
“Now when I look at it, I see an angry little boy, a 13-year-old who to me looks like he’s kind of mad at the world. But I realize now that when you look at what Avedon got in all of his pictures, it was a sternness in everybody’s face. Since mine was one of the earliest he shot, I like to think my expression helped lead to the look he wanted to capture. … I’m very proud of this picture.”
News researcher Marcia Melton contributed to this feature package in 2005.
Avedon in Texas: Selections from ‘In the American West’
- Through July 2
- Amon Carter Museum of American Art, 3501 Camp Bowie Blvd., Fort Worth
- 817-738-1933; www.cartermuseum.org