Exercise : In the American East

Read ‘In the American East’ by Richard Bolton ( in Bolton , 1992 , pp.262-83 and write a 200 word reflective commentary on its relevance to documentary practice .

Then look at the work of Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia (Foto8 , V6N1 , June 2006, pp.58-9) Core resources:Foto8#6.1-Appalachian.pdf

Avedon spent around 6 years taking portraits of drifters , cowboys , and the disadvantaged he encountered on his journey in the American West. Using a white background his subjects are isolated from their surroundings , the intensity of his subjects’ gaze makes it impossible to look away. “ Avedon’s was a West of those whom the boom years of ‘Reganomics’ had bypassed. There is much wrinkled flesh in the series , most of it prematurely wrinkled by a harsh climate and harsh circumstances” (Badger, 2007, pg. 180) . Taken out of context the austere portraits symbolise the solitude and hardship of the dispossessed . However Bolton dismisses this concept and suggests that Avedon’s style “renders the subject mute” ( Bolton , 1992 ,p.g 264 ) . Furthermore whilst Bolton agrees that Avedon has built up a collection of ‘types’ he argues that the images “ have only to do with how people look” ( Bolton, 1992, p.g 265 ), and tell us little else.

Bolton discusses the decline of heavy industry along with the growth of information technology identifying a post-industrial society where corporates own and control the means of communication . He considers the possibility that Art no longer functions “ as a critical space” ( Bolton,1992 , p.g 262 ) having lost its autonomy to the corporate culture he identifies. Whilst the growth of corporate funding might be considered invaluable it also enables corporations to influence how and what is seen , which has obvious implications for unbiased documentary practice.

Avedon was an established fashion photographer when he was commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum to document In the American West . Due to the financial backing it was important to prevent bad reviews hence great effort was made to control the media coverage . The Boston Institute of Contemporary Arts was sponsored by Filene’s , a department stall , to exhibit the work. The “media attention was extraordinary” ( Bolton , 1992 , p.g 273) gaining publicity the gallery itself was unable to afford but was able to use to its advantage , membership and visitors grew vastly. Furthermore Filene’s “used the show as the basis of a sales campaign for Western wear” ( Bolton , 1992 , p.g 274) fashion wear advertisements were juxtaposed with Avedon’s portraits whose subjects were obviously “ not rehearsed in professional portraiture and their somewhat ‘fish out of water ‘ vulnerability is revealing” ( Dickie , 2009 , p.g 79) which makes one question the morality of accepting such patronage and whether in fact Avedon’s subjects were exploited in some way.

However I greatly admire Avedon’s portraiture and saw some of his work last year at the MoMA , New York , a stark and highly detailed large scale print from the series In the American West was mesmerising. Unlike the ambiguity of Avedon’s images Oestervang’s photographs taken in Eastern Kentucky USA are contextual studies which place the subject within a recognisable environment , but does this make them any more truthful than Avedon’s studies ? The answer I think lies in understanding why the images were initially made and carefully considering who is funding the project , and why. The sponsorship so often needed to fund documentary projects unfortunately may also control , censor and restrict what is being communicated.




Badger , Gerry , ( 2007) . The Genius of Photography How photography has changed our lives , London UK:Quadrille Publishing

Bolton , R. (ed) , 1992 . The Context of Meaning:Critical Histories of Photography. Cambridge , MA :MIT Press

Dickie Chris , (2009) . Photography The 50 most influential photographers in the world, London , UK:A & C Black




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