The subjects are people you wouldn't talk to. In some cases, people you'd roll the windows up on the car and drive like hell to get away from. One picture was taken in Bexar County (pronounced: Bear by old timers, Bay-har by newscasters) prison. This one inmate, with horribly stitched up wounds on his gut from god-knows what, looks like he's about ready to attack you. His portrait was 10 feet tall. His lip is just beginning to curl up in a sneer.
GAH. I'm getting ahead of myself. Here's a HUGE beef I have with people not from here. Here, meaning Texas and the West. I've lived my whole life in either the Wild West or Texas. My father's family consists of cattle ranchers, farmers, coal miners... My uncle Marvin was the president of the National Rodeo Association for 25 years. My aunt Gaye was a goat ropin' champeen. My dad broke away - he wanted to pursue the higher calling of the arts, like those of his mother's family, who were musicians, inventors, violin makers. His dad died when he was 9 months old, and my grandmother married a man 30 years her senior because he was a successful farmer and could provide, and didn't mind that she had been married before. It was WW2, and a good man was hard to find.
We spent our summers visiting our aunts and uncles in the mountains, completely different from our "city life" in Big D. My mother liked to put on airs that we were very cosmopolitan and ignore her factory working father and other blue-collar family members back in Texas. They were poor, but honest and god fearing - two things she was not. Because I was raised to think I was "better" than those hicks, I always felt like an odd duck. I wasn't better than them, I just had a different accent. From both sets of family. I was shy and quiet, and would sit back and observe. Came to the conclusion that small town life is small town life, just different slang. Well, and in Texas, you prove you love a girl by spray painting her name on an overpass. Out in the mountains, you make her initials with stones on a hillside.
Life is hard and cruel, and if you can't make do, no one feels sorry for you, because everyone has troubles of their own. You do what you can with what you have, resigned that there's not much more. "What else is there?" in a wry tone is pretty much everyone's mantra. It isn't always bleak, it isn't always hard and awful, but - . It's like the flat, featureless land doesn't let you hide anything. When it's bad, it's pretty damned awful. When it's good, it's a change of pace. It's the family gathered on the lawn out by the house on folding chairs for a get-together, and Dixie cups getting blown up against the fence line as a testament to the moment of fun.
entrenous88 and I stayed up late on IM one night talking about the romanticed idea of poor people. That they can be dirty but beautiful and like to fuck. Because what else is there? I get REAL mad at that overgeneralization. One problem I had with this exhibit was the injections by Laura Wilson, who was Richard Avedon's assistant. (Mother to Luke and Owen, they grew up in one of the more posh neighborhoods, and honey, if we're talking about Dallas, that's saying something.) She has this detatched attitude of "aren't they pitiful but strong? So much wisdom in those eyes..." Lady, it's a trucker on a four day bender. Yeah, he's seen a lot, but he's not Proust in flannel. He beats off to "Hottt Asian Chick" porn and cleans up once a year to go to church and knows Conway Twitty by heart. This... fascination with the "downtrodden" among us as if they have the keys to a "simpler life." Bah.
None of the subjects were paid for their work. I'll let you draw any conclusions from that.
They're just people. People who live - in many cases - hard lives that I can't fathom. Running away at 13 and following carnivals in shit-water towns in the Dakotas. Following the gypsum mines in West Texas and working 36 hour shifts in a factory that hits 117 degrees every day. On and on. It's fascinating, sure. It drew me in - I stared at each of these pictures (I went through twice, actually) and you can practically hear their stories coming from their faces.
The way the exhibit was set up was effective and very subtle. I didn't notice until I went back through. The walls get darker and darker as you move through the maze of pictures, coinciding with the subject matter. The first pictures are young faces, mostly. Kids who ride around in a truck on Friday night looking for other kids riding around in trucks. A new father, 19 years old. Small town secretaries. Then you move to the drifters, the nuclear fall-out victim, the coal miners, the out of work farmers. Their scarred, lined faces crusted with dirt or soot or ash in sharp contrast to their light colored eyes, or the half inch of clean skin at their hairline from their hard-hats.
Most are looking straight back at you. Some images felt like an intrusion - like they are holding back a long-suffering sigh at my prying. Some faces are open, friendly, others are defiant, some daring you to say anything, and a few made me feel frightened. People I wouldn't dare speak to in real life staring at me, larger than life and in my face.
This man in the upper left corner haunts me. He looks like a caged cat. (I can scan in the larger image if anyone wants any of them. Hell, I paid for the book...)
This drifter - upper right corner - was found in Provo, sitting in a booth and rocking and sobbing. The photographer approached him and listened to his story: down on his luck, drove up north looking for work, car broke down, impounded, he lived in the mountains for three weeks eating berries and such until he finally crawled back down and someone plopped him in the diner for a hot meal. Avedon dropped him off at a shelter - the guy waved him off hours later with a smile and a full belly and noticably higher spirits.
An Indian drifter.
A boy with a freshly killed rattlesnake. Sweetwater, TX, which is out by the oil fields of West Texas and the David mountains, has a Rattlesnake Festival. Everyone goes out and catches them, keeps them in buckets, hauls them back and gets paid $x per pound by the Jaycees. No small town can survive without a local chapter of the Jaycees. Some lucky girl gets crowned Rattler Queen, a dance and feast is later that night. It's looked forward to all year. Fun in a small town. People come from miles and miles from their isolated homesteads.
This boy had a follow up story in the exhibit that just laid me low. Benson James, drifter, Indian. After the exhibit, there was a workroom with letters from the subjects, "how did they's," that sort of thing. They had a letter from this boy's sister. Apparently, he had been murdered a few weeks after this portrait was taken, he was found stabbed 40 times behind a little gas station. The mother found out about him being involved in this project, and was upset at him being called "a drifter." And were there royalties involved.
Here's your typical good-looking cowboy in a small town. He took over the family ranch in Wyoming after his dad was crushed to death by a tractor. He was 17 and engaged when this was taken. They had a follow up picture with him from last year. Wife and kids left him, can barely keep his land - ranching doesn't pay much unless you sell to a big company. Then all you are is a farm hand with no ownership. Aside from his eyes, you could barely tell it was this nice, open-faced kid.
This kid's a meat packer. Hard work in a slaughterhouse. Not the hardest job by a long shot, but hoisting 100-pound slab of packaged meat onto trucks for 12 hours?
This coal miner has amazing eyes. My uncle Mark was a coal miner for years. My aunt Gaye said he would wake up with a cold sweat, screaming from nightmares about cave-ins and no air. Copper mining is just as bad, but far less profitable. Copper is 75 cents to a pound, but costs a buck a pound to get. Why they continue to mine it...
Apparently this exhibit raised a ruckus when it opened in 1985 - this wasn't what people thought the West was. It was John Wayne and sweet blonde girls looking to have babies and keep the homestead. Indians wore headdresses and were proud and tall. Romanticized by Hollywood. But this IS the West. These are people I've seen, people I've avoided, people I've watched. One trip driving out to Utah to visit the family, we were heading through Gallup, NM. Pouring down rain, two-lane highway in the middle of nowhere. My dad traveling one way, an 18-Wheeler coming to us, and a pissed-drunk Indian walking on the yellow diving line in the middle, staggering. My dad saw him right before he swerved to miss, the visibility was so poor. The guy didn't get hurt, but the semi-truck almost jack-knifed off the road trying to miss him, too. Just another day on the Res. If my dad ever sneaks a beer with my husband, he'll start talking about growing up in farm country and the old drifters that follow the herds. I have stories that'll curl your hair. Or... straighten it, if it's already curly. Heh.
If anyone wondered what one of my most favorite movies of all time is (and favorite as in - most affected me, think about more than any other, hit me like nothing else) that would be "The Last Picture Show." Larry McMurtry. Ring a bell? No other movie depicted small town life as perfectly as that did. In fact, it's SO good, you almost squirm in your seat trying to get out, like the kids are. Of course, Jaycee's mom would have WAAAY more make-up in real life, but that movie is so powerful and wonderful and hurty and fantastic.
Blah. I go eat chocolate now.