Nostalgia is a curious, dark beast. It imbues virtually everything we taste, hear, see, discuss, recall, cherish and too often despise also. Even the stoniest of hearts must endeavour hard to deny it’s foundation in our collective psyches. One of many reasons that makes Richard Avedon’s brutal, solemn In The American West such a bold, hypnotic masterwork.
An internationally acclaimed fashion photographer since the late 1940s, a master crafter of high fashion and seemingly effortless chic Avedon was comissioned in the Spring of 1979 by Mitchell. A. Wilder the director of the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas. His task? Over five summers to scour the wild wild West of the United States and capture the battered character, soul and heartland of America resulting in an exhibition in the Autumn of 1985 with a set of prints and negatives that would become a permanent part of the Amon archives. County fairs, coalmines, truckstops and stockyards, diners and beauty parlours were his and his assistant’s hunting grounds.
Even though the book of the exhibition was first published in 1985 it somehow felt like this unique collection of images had always been here. You don’t recall a fanfare, or a declaration, a cavalcade or a ticker tape parade. This wasn’t that side of America. This was a land of elements and expanses, family, poverty and hard, hard work. It was nothing you’d ever experienced, a barely shared language yes but really no frame of reference other than an inherent, simple humanity.
These tough, battered, occasionally broken but more often noble faces calmly, solemnly stared back at you. Engaging, defying, watching. Reflecting your own thoughts, worries, hopes and way too many silent fears. As a teenage art student – all Face and i-D magazine literate, you knew your Gaultiers from your Gallianos, thank you – holding this huge, clean tome in Foyles or Waterstones and staring into the louche, creased face of the dandyish drifter worried you. You saw even the vaguest glimmer of yourself in there and it scared you ice cold. He’d lived. He knew. He’d had it all – you could see it in his eyes – and he’d lost it. And so, Child could you.