FROM a prosperous East Coast city, it's possible to dismiss failed farms and mining towns gone bust. But Richard Avedon has arranged for a confrontation with "forgotten Americans" in his photo- documentary, "In the American West," opening Saturday at the Corcoran.

A five-year odyssey took him to 17 states, where he photographed 752 working-class people. He stood his subjects in front of a large sheet of white paper taped to a wall, for his now-familiar format of contrasty portraits, free of environment. When he made the prints, he made them larger than life.

Avedon encountered Bill Curry, 46, drifter, young eyes, old face, sinewy body, near the Interstate at Yukon, Oklahoma. It was at a fair that Avedon saw Sandra Bennett, 12, with everything yet possible, a freckled beauty in overalls. And at that same fair, he saw a young carny, Juan Patricio Lobato, standing in a perfected slump, his spine a sullen S-shape. Avedon discovered the Johnson sisters on a wheat farm near Wild Horse, Colorado. The three women, in their 40s, have made the Loretta Lynn Fan Club their life's work.

Avedon photographed distracted mental patients, bruised cowboys and overworked waitresses, and an assortment of oilfield workers and coal miners, otherworldly in the black birthmarks of their trade.

A beekeeper coated with bees and a boy holding a snake like a mythical lyre, Avedon describes as "works of imagination." But the rest, he says, are simply "people we fly over and drive past." In a portrait of America that Avedon has been working on for almost 40 years, these are the last chapter, after his photos of bankers, politicians, "celebrities," great beauties, artists and performers.

It's a sociological statement with artistic connotations.

"There's a serious Depression of all kinds out there," says Avedon. "And you have a class of sometimes third-tion Americans who grew up with a dream of upward mobility that are losing their farms. The drifters aren't drifting because it's fun; most of them are looking for their next jobs."

They squint, they frown, they pout. But they don't smile. The smile is a mask, says Avedon, "the response to the Polaroid and the snapshot." They may be smiling at the camera at first, but by the time he sets up the picture, "They tend to go into themselves, probably out of boredom," he says.

"Not looking good means not being happy," says Avedon. And there are a fair number of subjects here who are either singularly unattractive or simply miserable.

And what will happen to them? Will the freckled beauty, in 10 years, be the housewife with the spot on her shirt, and in 20, the blond bartender with too much eye shadow?