they go on view today at the Corcoran Gallery of Art -- overwhelm unfairly. They are facts compressed to fictions. They look like life but are not life; life is not so searing. Their beauty is the beauty of impossible intensity.
Though stills, they attack suddenly. Before you've had a chance to disarm their devices -- of scale and precision, addition and subtraction -- their dark work has been done. They've evoked that gasp of disbelief Avedon intended. They've stabbed you in the eye.
The artist spent six summers traveling the West, ransacking its ranches, rodeos and truck stops, slaughter houses, mines, hospitals and prisons, searching for these staring eyes, these odd, heart-stopping postures, these life-eroded faces. "In the American West" is his exhibition's title. But it might well have been "In the Heart of Richard Avedon." These pictures are illusions. They tell us more about Manhattan's manipulative theatrics than they do about Montana, and more about the artist than they do about the West.
"A portrait is not a likeness," Avedon admits. "The moment an emotion or a fact is transformed into a photograph it is no longer a fact but an opinion. There is no such thing as inaccuracy in a photograph. All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth."
What pulls these works from truth is the esthetic that controls them, an esthetic that the artist has been developing for years. The beauty he seeks is a beauty that's survived radical destruction, a beauty that's been forced through the thicket of the horrible.
Forget the most horrific bits -- the missing limbs and awful scars, the crawling bees, the snake guts, the fierce demented gazes, the dull tattoos -- their power is too easy. But even those few faces here that might be seen as conventionally lovely or attractive, innocent or sexy, have been weighted with more details than the viewer can absorb. Look at Sandra Bennett, an oddly grown-up 12-year-old discovered by the artist in Rocky Ford, Colo. The softness of her body suggests Marilyn Monroe's, but her eyebrow has too many hairs, her skin too many freckles. Avedon's old-fashioned 8x10 view camera, a tripod-mounted Deardorf, sees more sharply than the human eye -- and shows us more than we can bear.
Avedon has added much to the girl who stood before him. She is not centered in the frame, but stands a little to the right, leaving to the left the sort of space a ghost might occupy. And her scale is not that of life. In the newspaper, or even in the finely printed book that accompanies the show, these photographs lose much of their presence. To fully feel their impact you must see them on the wall. Not one of the 100 faces in the Corcoran's exhibition -- admission is $1.50 -- is exactly life-size. A few, often those of patients selected from the mental wards, instead are slightly smaller, thus diminishing their humanness. Many others here are larger, thus diminishing our own.
By distancing reality through these and other tricks, Avedon succeeds in heightening it again. All the pictures at the gallery retain those firm black film-case edges, a trademark of the artist that somehow tells the viewer, "See, we're really photographs; we look like people, but we're not, we're far too sharply focused, and we do not move as people do, and we have no colors, we all are black and white." That sense of artifice-at-work is strengthened by the way these images are mounted. None is behind glass. Each, instead, is fastened to a sheet of brushed aluminum, an elegant material that somehow gives these sitters -- with their weatherbeaten bodies, their gaping pores and hard-luck lives -- a surrounding halo of startling New York chic.
The more we look, the more we see how much Avedon the artist has added to the givens of his subjects. He focuses so carefully that while their nose tips and their ear lobes may be slightly blurred, their eyes are seen so clearly we cannot avoid the glance. The cropping of his photographs, the way their edges slice through bodies and his use of white space, too, remind us he's a master of two-dimensional design. He is a choreographer as well. The poses here are never stiff. His figures seem to dance.
They dance against blank whiteness. Avedon posed all of his subjects against a sheet of paper, out of direct sunlight. What the artist has denied them is not just their real size. The landscape also has been subtracted. The show is filled with westerners, but the West is never seen.
Except by implication. You cannot see these miners without thinking of the coal seam; you cannot see these ranchers without remembering the range.
"This is a fictional West," Avedon has acknowledged. "I don't think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne."
But John Wayne helped us grow our myths. Always there behind him were the cottonwoods, the cattle, the big skies and the buttes. Here there is just whiteness. That antiseptic absence somehow turns these people into artists' specimens -- isolated, vulnerable, intensely individual -- yet specimens nonetheless.
When he photographs for Vogue, Avedon, the clothes-seller, eviscerates his models' souls, allowing them to dissolve. Here he does the opposite. The weather-furrowed face of the drifter Clarence Lippard, found in Sparks, Nev., and the mud-stained beard of Red Owens, an oil-field worker from Velma, Okla., and the parched lips of Roy Honeycutt, a rodeo stock contractor from Alamosa, Tex., seem to conjure novels. One weakness of this show is that the stories it evokes are not entirely original. They share nothing with Zane Grey's, but their sense of luck mislaid, of madness held at bay, of hard living and hard luck, overwhelming detail and of paradise gone hellish, remains half-familiar. We have encountered it before in the decaying country shacks of Raymond Carver's short stories and in Norman Mailer's "The Executioner's Song."
Its spirit is New Yorkish, urban, eastern, knowing. Avedon's exhibition confounds Ansel Adams, but embraces Diane Arbus.
For more than half a century, New York street photography has forced us to confront the monsters in our midst. They wander lost, half-crazed, alone through many of the photographs of the New York School, in which Richard Avedon is a member in good standing. He was photographing corpses in the catacombs of Europe in 1959. In 1963, he made a series of appalling snake-pit pictures in mental institutions. Later, with his camera, he watched his father slowly die.
Downstairs at the Corcoran -- where you don't have to pay to see it -- is the last part of a three-part show, organized by Jane Livingston and John Gossage, on the photographs of the New York School. Young Avedon is in it. His photographs on view here, surrounded by the pictures of Arbus, Robert Frank, Leon Levinstein, Louis Faurer, Sid Grossman, Lisette Model and others, undercut the newness of the western portraits on display upstairs.
New York's paintings, New York's punk and New York's subways, too, somehow shock more fiercely than those of other cities. The merely pretty rarely sells there; stronger stuff is called for. "In the American West" is a show of New York art.
The work of Richard Avedon is part heartfelt and part tricky. But his tricks are sharp -- they work. Too much easy praise has been poured upon his work. But Avedon remains an artist of astonishing accomplishment. His art is somehow hostile. It is less than wholly likable. But camera-made portraits of such gut-constricting power have never been displayed in Washington before.
They were commissioned by the Amon Carter Museum of Fort Worth. They will travel to San Francisco, Chicago, Phoenix, Boston and Atlanta after leaving Washington. The Corcoran's exhibit closes Feb. 16.