People Surveys -In The American East

Next up…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)

To understand the significance of the essay you have to be familiar with  the work of Richard Avedon and in this particular instance his body of work  In the American West.

Immediately below is a selection of his portraiture.

I found a good article about his work here and the link to In The American West is here. To appreciate his style this quote is quite handy:

I’ve worked out of a series of no’s…No to exquisite light, no to apparent compositions, no to the seduction of poses or narrative. And all these no’s force me to the ‘yes.’ I have a white background. I have the person I’m interested in and the thing that happens between us.

I often asked myself why he included the black frame of the edge of the negative, apparently the answer is to make it clear ‘that the only crop had been in his mind’s eye’. As you can see his style of portrait photography did not alter.

The public were used to a romantic version of the west; Avedon’s work was thought to be disturbing, as he removed the backdrops and context from the subjects. It was also felt that he, a resident of New York City, was being critical of the American West. When asked about the documentary element of his images he replied, ‘This is a fictional West…I don’t think the West of these portraits is any more conclusive than the West of John Wayne…All photographs are accurate. None of them is the truth.’

This article provides background information as to how and why this body of work came about and just as interesting is this article on the influence Avedon and his work has had on the advertising campaigns of the fashion industry

When I have time I shall so watch this.

So, onto the essay by Bolton which is in three parts, firstly, the introduction, secondly, how he feels Avedon ‘incorporates and refashions’ the ‘marginalized class’ and lastly how these photographs are used by museums and corporations.

Prior to, and during the Reagan administration, many American cities faced the decline of heavy industry, replaced by high-tech and ‘clean’ office work; hard labour had been shunted ‘out of sight’. Capitalists and major corporations held the power of communication, and art, a major means of communication, found itself being put to use in ‘public relations, sales and entertainment.’

Exercise- In the American East: Richard Avedon Incorporated.

The basic premise seems to be that corporations have too much control; some documentary work ‘isn’t’, and work is easily hijacked for other uses. This is quite relevant to the direction that documentary photography is headed today with corporate sponsorship and the developing relationships between documentary work and galleries/museums.

In 1978, the Amon Carter Museum asked Avedon to capture ‘the spirit’ of the American West. Bolton is critical: his subjects appear as objects of ‘voyeurism and fascination’ , whilst building a collection of ‘types’ the images relate to ‘how people look’, creating a uniform ‘lower class’.  I would counter this by stating that this is Avedon’s style, approaching all subjects in the same way.

Bolton posits that Art no longer functions ‘as a critical space’, losing autonomy to corporations. He cites In the American West as an example; Avedon, the Amon Carter Museum and his publisher controlled and coordinated all publicity.  Corporations getting placed into positions of influence, has implications for unbiased and exploitative documentary practice.

One Boston exhibition was sponsored by Filene’s (an established dept. store). Avedon’s pictures were ‘positioned in the landscape of the new economy’: there was a membership drive for the ICA; Filene’s used the show as a basis of a sales campaign for Western wear. Was it right to use images of the ‘dispossessed’ and innocent in such a way?

Appropriation will always be part of the photographic movement but Bolton concludes that Avedon’s work is unsavoury due to the amount of control from the dominant class, interpretations have been ‘managed’ throughout, with any sentiment or outrage being sanitised and images misappropriated

Charlotte Oestervang in Appalachia

Charlotte Oestervang is a documentary photographer from Denmark who was inspired by Shelby Lee Adams to take photographs of residents in Appalachia, Eastern Kentucky.

Below is a selection of photographs taken by Adams, I found them to be warm, sympathetic photographs revealing a very close-knit community depicting a mountain lifestyle.


According to the ‘blurb’ Oestervang ‘set herself a challenge to synthesise the vast array of new images from an unfamiliar culture into single images which would stand alone as portraits, inviting the viewers to make up their own mind…’


Avedon was criticised for removing people from their backgrounds and for selecting his subjects for their ‘anti-aesthetic’ appeal. Oestervang, on the other hand, includes everything; her contextual studies placing the subject within a recognisable environment, yet these images appear to be more stereotypical than his ‘stage-managed’ under class.

Taking a leaf out of Diane Arbus’ book, Oestervang appears to have selectively edited her images to present her subjects as miserable, crazy, backward, obese, poverty-stricken, ‘hillbilly’ freaks.

Whilst purporting to be factual documentary I don’t think these photographs are any more truthful than Avedon’s and left more of a bad taste in my mouth. I found them to be more exploitative than his. He was criticized for making his photographs ‘more Avedon’ than ‘ his ‘sitters’ but the same could be levelled at Oestervang who, to me at least, failed to represent her subjects, particularly the younger generation, in a dignified manner.

It would appear that power and control need to be carefully exercised even if not held in the hands of a large corporation.



4127, amer (2011) Richard Avedon’s ‘in the American west’ | #ASX. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Bolton, R. (1992) ‘In The American East’ in The Contest of Meaning. Massachusetts: MIT

Freeman, A. (2007) The American west via Avedon’s lens. Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Oestervang, C. (2016) The Appalachian trail –slash– eastern Kentucky. Available at:–slash–%20Eastern%20Kentucky/1/15/ (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Stuever, H. (2004) Richard Avedon’s ruthless eye ( Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

Volume 6 number 1 (2007) Available at: (Accessed: 31 December 2016).

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