There is currently a Richard Avedon exhibit at the Stanford University Art Gallery. Ironically, one of the portraits (above) pictures a namesake to my brother and is prominently displayed as, "James Kimberlin, Drifter". Some long lost relative, I suppose.
In these photos Avedon has taken the techniques of billboard advertising, used by the likes of Apple and Nike in places like Times Square, and focused them on a particular set of straggling characters of the American West. In doing so, he both humanizes and exploits them. In later years, after one of the subjects died, his mother wrote Avedon saying she had no idea her son was, "on a book", and wondered if there was any money due him.
When these photos were first displayed they upset a lot of people. "This is not our American West", they complained. But gradually museums displayed the photos and as critics wrote about them, they found their place.
It is said that, "Avedon rejected the comfortable stereotype of the American West in favor of something with more bite; inviting people to stare at the marks that rural life and physical labor made on these people". The initial reaction of the audience was revulsion. Their expectations of the fabled West were confronted with a reality that was uncomfortable.
Yet, at some point the viewer realizes how much he has in common with these creatures, whose finely detailed images have been magnified into life sized portraits. At the same time, the photos also bring to mind an acknowledgement that the life of man, as Thomas Hobbes noted, is sometimes, "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short."
The results are as if the greatest painter of the age was asked to momentarily step away from the task of celebrating the rich and the powerful, and instead turn his attentions and skills to the least of us, that we might also be celebrated.
Avedon accomplishes this, if not more.