I will never forget that Fashion Photography class at Ohio University where we learned that Richard Avedon had rocked the boat. It was 1986, and he had just completed a six-year project, In the American West, where he traveled far from his New York studio and photographed a variety of working class Westerners. His portrayals were unflinchingly raw takes of real people. He recorded his subjects with extreme detail, some of them having just emerged out of a mineshaft, off the oil field or from within a slaughterhouse. Drifters, housewives, clerks, waitresses and migrants all stood in front of Avedon's 8x10 view camera, and trusted him to record their image. "I'm looking for people who are surprising--heartbreaking--or beautiful in a terrifying way. Beauty that might scare you to death until you acknowledge it as part of yourself," Avedon told Laura Wilson, one of his assistants on the project, and author of Avedon at Work in the American West.
The resulting portraits, presented as life-sized prints at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas, strayed wide away from conventional portrayals of the American West. Many wondered why Avedon, renowned for fashion shots and celebrity portraits, would go West and make such a statement. Avedon eventually gained the respect of the critics, our class actively debated the virtues of In the American West, and we learned how to rock the boat.
And so 24 years later I embarked on this video homage to Richard Avedon and the making of the portrait of coal miner Edward Roop. The goal is to show the viewer how Avedon would craft a portrait, using period equipment and showing the photography team seamlessly performing their duties. For the vast majority of his In the American West portraits Avedon worked outdoors, tacking up white seamless paper on the shady side of a building. The resulting light was enveloping, soft and "invisible," as he said in his foreword to the exhibition's book. The figure in front of the camera was starkly presented, with no distractions. After the subject was framed and focused on the camera's ground glass, the lens was closed and the film inserted, and Avedon relied on imagination for what the film was capturing. He exposed 17,000 negatives this way.
Choosing the Edward Roop portrait for my video presented a dilemma. In mid-December, 1979, Avedon went to Colorado's North Fork Valley and photographed miners in the towns of Paonia and Somerset. These seem to be the only sittings where Avedon used artificial lighting instead of daylight, and I could not determine why. However, my choice was fortuitous, as finding a snowless outdoor location in February in Cleveland would have proved quite impossible. This anomaly in Avedon's series granted me permission to show him using studio strobes in an interior setting.
As I researched Avedon's portraits and methodologies I was reminded of my time as a photographer's assistant in New York. I put every ounce of energy into my big chance: an interview with a fashion photographer that I revered, Arthur Elgort. Alas, I walked out of his Soho studio happy for the chance, but without the job. I did not pursue any more superstars of photography, but spent the next five years assisting a variety of accomplished New York photographers. I often remember "the one that got away," and wonder how my life would have changed if I had started loading film backs for Elgort back in 1987. In light of that experience, it somehow seemed fitting that I play the part of Richard Avedon, and I chose to play both of his camera assistants, as well.
Throughout this process of role-playing, I've uncovered a desire to emulate Richard Avedon--in the quality of work produced, in the variety of photography accomplished and perhaps even in the eyeglasses he wore. But I've also unearthed the desire to be a great, if not famous, photographer in my own right. This is a truth that is hard to ignore. And the only answer--and the best homage to Richard Avedon--is to keep shooting.
Special thanks to: Timothy Riffle, Bruce Edwards, Brent Collins (the coal miner), Lisa Adams (hair & make-up), Stosh Burgess , Beth Segal, Sally Hudak, Matt Bartel, Dana Depew, Cindy Penter, and the Brownhoist Building.