While known to many for his elegant fashion photography and celebrity portraits, Richard Avedon is also distinguished for one of his biggest projects–a best-selling book and traveling exhibit entitled In the American West. In contrast to the glamorous personalities that usually graced his frames, everyday working class subjects such as miners in their soiled working clothes, housewives, and farmers became the focus of his compelling collection of portraits.
The project, commissioned by Amon Carter Museum director Mitchell A. Wilder, took five years, countless trips through state fair rodeos, carnivals, coal mines, and even prisons, 762 subjects, and approximately 17,000 sheets of 8 x 10 Kodak Tri-X Pan film to complete. With a project of this scale, timeline, and output, it’s not surprising that many, including Avedon himself, called it his magnum opus.
If this particular body of work by Richard Avedon has got you wanting to make portraits in the same minimalist yet striking style, Marcy James of the Rocky Mountain School of Photography has broken it down to some key takeaways for you:
You can always make the outdoors your studio.
Lovers of natural light know this all too well. If you find yourself intimidated by all the lighting setup in a studio, you can always make the outdoors your studio. For his American West project, Avedon both embraced natural light and brought his signature white background out with him, which was the most practical choice given all the moving around that he and his crew had to do.
Simplicity is key.
Choosing to use that white background for the American West project was also a clever choice for Avedon. Not only did he retain his signature style, but also used this creative vision of simplicity to make every element of his subjects stand out — their gestures, facial expressions, clothes, and physical feature. There’s nothing like a stark white background to make those details pop.
Major projects take time and lots of consideration.
If you want to create a major body of work, you can be sure that it’s not going to take just a week to shoot. It needs to span a certain length of time or cover a lot of ground to build something conclusive. Likewise, if you’re thinking of showcasing a project in a scale as big as Avedon’s (life-sized portraits), there are also lots of factors to consider.
Elevate your subjects.
Avedon’s chosen subjects for In the American West were ordinary people, but he photographed them as he would if they were Hollywood stars or iconic people. While he was also accused of exploiting the working class and evoking condescending emotions for this project, we can’t deny that his portraits made these ordinary people timeless and every bit a part of the American West’s history.
Know who you are and own it.
When you see an image by Avedon, you know it is his work — it has his attention to detail and signature playful, minimalist style all over it. Strive to have a certain character or style to your work and own it in the same way. Transfer a bit of your personality to it, make it a canvas for your imagination, and mix it with your subject’s own personality.
While these tips may especially apply with fashion photography or portraiture in mind, it could also work for other types of photography projects with a little tweaking. Through persistence, hard work, and creative vision, Richard Avedon made work that defined the genres he chose to specialize in. These tips hopefully can inspire you to take the first step in building your own photographic masterpiece in the same way.