Ashley Jouhar explores the legacy of Richard Avedon’s influential series ‘In the American West’ and how the approach has become visual shorthand for ‘Truthfulness’.
In 1985, when Richard Avedon first published his influential book of portraits, ‘In the American West’, he wouldn’t have known that its influence would still be being felt today. At the time, of course, this photographic record of drifters, miners, oil patch workers and other marginalized folk was met with outrage. To a public used to a romantic notion of the west, Avedon’s work was thought to be disturbing. It was also felt that he, a resident of New York City, was being critical of the American West.
The uncompromising approach that Avedon used with his subjects awkwardly comporting themselves in front of his camera, revealed them as they really are – as close to a ‘Truthful’ portrait as you are likely to get.
Not long after, Avedon was asked to shoot a Levi’s ad campaign for BBH in London, shooting the subjects in precisely the same way but wearing Levi’s clothing. Why? Levi’s wanted the association with gritty truthfulness. The ‘take-out’ by a consumer would be that this is authentic clothing that is worn by simple, honest folk. What you see is what you get. The handwritten headlines underlined the individuality of the clothing and how it was worn.
Then came the Steven Meisel CK One campaign, also borrowing a truthfulness and simplicity in its portraiture from Avedon’s originals but moving it into a more androgynous area.
Since then we have had GAP campaigns, most famously shot by Albert Watson, a master of lighting techniques and black & white photography. At this point the ‘truthfulness’ is coupled with a more commercial, fashion edge. It is an approach that wants to add a little gloss to the grit. After all, you don’t want to alienate your target market.
Guess Jeans moves it closer to fashion and sex. Most often shot by Ellen von Unwerth, the truthfulness has been replaced by cheeky, provocative poses but still retains a shred of authenticity with its black & white photography (shoot anything in black & white and you immediately communicate ‘truth’).
Levi’s have skirted around the original Avedon shot campaign on and off ever since the original. Here’s an example from the mid noughties. You can see traces of the original but it is a watered down version, adjusting itself depending on the Marketing people at Levis and sales, no doubt.
In more recent times we have had press campaigns by ‘Eleven Paris’ and a distinctive landing page that gives us a few pointers that it sprang from the loins of ‘In the American West’ and True Religion Jeans where you can trace directly back to Avedon’s original portraits and the Levi’s ads that followed.
Here is a Levis campaign from earlier this year. It’s gone colour but spot the heritage…
In the seventies and early eighties, Avedon’s single-minded eye captured those fragile, real life Americans on a large format camera. In the years since, his vision has been appropriated by advertisers as a ‘go to’ style that can immediately portray heritage, honesty and authenticity. Marketing men will continue to buy this look off the shelf to sell their own wares but that doesn’t lessen the original impact that ‘In the American West’ had and continues to have. As the publisher of the book said “Richard Avedon’s ‘In the American West’ is widely regarded as a landmark project in photographic history and a definitive expression of the power of photographic art’.