Richard Avedon, ‘Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker, Omaha, Nebraska, August 10, 1979’, 1979, Phillips

Collection of Georges Bermann

Image/Sheet: 143.2 x 114.6 cm (56 3/8 x 45 1/8 in.)
Frame: 156.1 x 124.4 cm (61 1/2 x 48 7/8 in.)

From the Catalogue:
Working primarily in the summers between 1979 and 1984, Richard Avedon photographed extensively for a commission from the Amon Carter Museum of American Art, culminating in the seminal exhibition and book In the American West. He chose the title In the American West and not ‘The American West’ as the project was about the people rather than the places he encountered while travelling west of the Mississippi. As such, Avedon’s photographs mark both a break and a continuation with the tradition of easterners documenting the West. Rather than creating pastoral images of a vast, empty landscape, Avedon eliminated the outside world and focused exclusively on its inhabitants.

Over the course of five years, Avedon and his team travelled from the Rockies, to south of the Mexican border, to the Great Plains and the Sierra Nevada. They visited 17 states and 189 towns, used 17,000 sheets of film and photographed 752 people, resulting in 123 portraits. In her 2003 memoir Avedon at Work, Laura Wilson describes how ‘right from the start, he [Avedon] chose men and women who worked at hard, uncelebrated jobs, people whose lives were often ignored or overlooked’. And these portraits, she argues, ‘reflect Avedon’s single-minded pursuit of his own vision, his exploration of the human condition, its ambiguity and desperateness.’

Avedon would pose the subjects in front of a large sheet of white paper hung against a wall or a trailer. He would operate the shutter remotely, standing beside his 8x10 view camera and maintaining eye contact with his subjects in order to create a more intimate atmosphere. Avedon describes, ‘there is nothing between us except what happens as we observe one another during the making of the portrait.’ Wilson remembers how Avedon would find the story and emotion in someone that no one else noticed.

Throughout their travels, Richard Avedon and his team visited various oil fields, underground mines, farms and construction sites. According to Wilson, however gruelling those places were, ‘the work in the slaughterhouse was the most exhausting and unrelieved. The odor is sickening, and the noise never lets up.’ The present lot Blue Cloud Wright, 1979, was taken in the first year of the project in Omaha, Nebraska at a slaughterhouse. Rendered in black and white, the photograph does not lend itself to an immediate reading of the harsh working conditions described by Wilson; we are distanced from the reality of the subject’s blood-drenched shirt and the blood trickling down his arms, which he holds away from his sides.

By presenting the subject in isolation against a white backdrop, Avedon transforms a slaughterhouse worker from Omaha, Nebraska into a symbolic figure. Of his white backgrounds, he explains, ‘I think we live in a kind of a void; that there is nothing before and there is nothing after. And the white for me represents that void. It makes people symbolic of themselves. You see only what’s written on their faces.’ Contrary to the brutality of the subject’s occupation, Avedon’s portrait of Blue Cloud Wright embodies a certain stillness and its monumentality is further enhanced in this larger than life-size print.
Courtesy of Phillips

Signature: Signed and numbered 6/6 in stylus in the margin; signed, numbered 6/6 in ink, copyright credit reproduction limitation, title, date and edition stamps on the reverse of the aluminium mount.

R. Avedon, In the American West, Abrams, 1985, n.p.

Gagosian Gallery, Paris

About Richard Avedon

Although Richard Avedon’s celebrated fashion photographs have graced the pages of Harper’s Bazaar, Vogue, and Life, the artist primarily referred to himself as a portrait photographer. Avedon’s fashion shots are profoundly dramatic and dynamic, often capturing the model in motion. Along with his own acquaintances and various ordinary people, Avedon took photographs of celebrities, politicians, and other public figures ranging from Bertrand Russell to Marilyn Monroe. In both his commercial assignments and his portrait work, Avedon’s meticulous approach and penetrating gaze sought to capture the essence of each unique subject and moment in time.

American, 1923-2004, New York, New York

Solo Shows

Richard Avedon
New York,
Richard Avedon: Murals & Portraits

Group Shows

New York,
Getty Museum, 
Los Angeles, CA, USA,
Icons of Style: A Century of Fashion Photography, 1911–2011
Time Magazine, 
New York, NY, USA,
The Most Influential Images of All Time