Three decades after portrait photographer Richard Avedon showed us Texas, maybe we are finally comfortable seeing it.
From 1985, Avedon’s “In the American West” portraits remain the New York photographer’s greatest work and one of Texas’ most telling cultural moments, drawing shocked crowds of 50,000-plus to the Amon Carter Museum.
Some of the lifesize portraits of oilfield workers and rattlesnake handlers were so stark, or so unsettling, that patrons were embarrassed for Texas.
A Tarleton State professor wrote in the Star-Telegram: “New Yorkers will be delighted to have their suspicions confirmed: that no one in the American West ever bathes.”
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Writer Larry McMurtry, familiar with young Texans’ bored stares, wrote: “Disappointment is there even in the youngest people photographed. It is as if they sense that a promise will soon be broken, that life will never be for them as advertised in People magazine.”
Just as McMurtry eventually grew more comfortable with rural Texas and the stories of “Lonesome Dove,” we’re now more comfortable with the eccentricities and extremes of “In the American West.”
A new Carter exhibit, “Avedon in Texas,” presents 17 Texas portraits shot in 10 cities between 1979 and 1982.
“When these were first presented, there was consternation,” said the Carter’s senior curator of photographs, John Rohrbach.
Dallas’ intelligentsia ignored the exhibit. Patrons complained Avedon was making fun.
When ‘In the American West’ opened in 1985, some Dallas media outlets declined to recognize or review it.
Now, Avedon’s portraits just seem like timeless images of Texans.
First-time patrons are stunned at the size, Rohrbach said. Then they look at each person’s eyes, and hands.
“The genius is that there’s no glass over the photos, no acrylic — that person is right there looking at you,” Rohrbach said.
Every one could have been taken yesterday.
John Rohrbach, Amon Carter Museum senior curator of photographs
“It’s amazing how fresh they are. Every one could have been taken yesterday.”
Shirtless trucker Billy Mudd of Alto, whose piercing stare made the cover of Texas Monthly, could just as easily be driving a big rig today. Rattlesnake handler Boyd Fortin, 13, his apron bloody from skinning snakes, could have just come from last weekend’s Sweetwater roundup.
Avedon, commissioned by the Carter, crisscrossed the West for five years, but the six portraits shot that 1979 weekend in Sweetwater became the project’s basis, Rohrbach said.
“This exhibit focusing only on Texas is something I get asked for regularly,” he said: “This was the foundation.”
Rohrbach will retell the stories of Avedon and what he found in Texas in a gallery talk at 6:30 p.m. Thursday. The exhibit continues through July 2.
Take a look. Or another look.