Week 5: Stereotypes in Portraiture

Richard Avedon,  In the American West  (1973)

Richard Avedon, In the American West (1973)

DISCUSSION: How is bias in portraiture conveyed? We will discuss incidental bias and stereotypes in portraiture using Richard Avedon’s In the American West as an example. Reviewing principles already discussed in class; the studio, implemented lighting, portraits of strangers, and portrait as performance, we will discuss the formal and conceptual veracity of Avedon’s portraits and how these images shape our worldview.

STUDIO: Using implemented lighting and white backdrops, students will replicate Avedon’s stylistic choices in groups during class, paying special attention to the physical implications this aesthetic has on subjects.

ASSIGNMENT: Students will be assigned to make as many photographs as possible, of whatever the like, over the next week.


Sometimes I think all my pictures are just pictures of me. My concern is… the human predicament; only what I consider the human predicament may simply be my own. ” – Richard Avedon

…Avedon’s most recent portrait effort, In the American West, published by Abrams in 1985, furthers that theme, once again by a characteristic emphasis at the end of the book. There, in studies of slaughtered sheep and steer, he insists upon such details as glazed and sightless eyes, blood-matted wool, and gore languidly dripping from snouts. As his father was the only unprominent person in the first campaign, so the animals are the only nonhuman subjects in the second. It’s as if Avedon were each time underlining his philosophy by breaking his category. Adjoining the guignol presences of the animals are ghoulish images of miners and oil-field workers, as befouled by the earth as the animals by their spilled entrails.

For Avedon’s program is supraindividual. He wants to portray the whole American West as a blighted culture that spews out casualties by the bucket: misfits, drifters, degenerates, crackups, and prisoners-entrapped, either literally or by debasing work. Pawns in his indictment of their society, his subjects must have thought they were only standing very still for the camera. Even those few in polyester suits who appear to have gotten on more easily in life are visualized with Avedon’s relentless frontality and are pinched in the confined zone of the mug shot. In photography, this is the adversarial framework par excellence. He could rely on knowledge of this genre to drive home the idea of a coercive approach (which he frankly admits), and of incriminated content. But why should he have imitated a lineup? And why, since this is his personal vision, should he refer to an institutional mode?

The blank, seamless background thrusts the figures forward as islands of textures of flesh, certainly, but also of cloth. Nothing competes with the presentation of their poor threads, nothing of the personal environment, nothing that might situate, inform, and support a person in the real world, or even in a photograph.