Exercise: Avedon and Oestervang


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)


Bolton on Avedon

Blue Cloud Wright, slaughterhouse worker. Omaha, Nebraska, 1979 – Richard Avedon

Avedon’s In the American West (1985) was an uneasy marriage of documentary subject matter and fashion photography aesthetics, and the latter dominates.

I largely agree with Bolton’s take that it was an exploitative rather than informative project.

The motives of the project come across as being more about the photographer than the subjects. The subjects seem to have been chosen for their visual distinctiveness rather than as representations of their circumstances.

Removing the context by shooting on plain white background makes the sitters ‘Avendon Subjects’ rather than individuals with real lives.

Levis ad, 1986 – Richard Avedon

Aesthetics dominate the project:

“Avedon spent five years making portraits of everyday citizens of the American West in the Reagan era, and never did they look more flown-over, more craggy, more hardworkingly exotic.” (Washington Post, 2004).

It’s telling that shortly after the project he was hired by Levis for an ad campaign with the same aesthetic. The American West photos acted as a calling card for the next phase in his already-stratospheric career.

One can take some of the traits of documentary photography (subject matter, colour palette) but if some of the other important traits are absent (intent to inform or move viewers, ‘truthful’ scenes) the end result is somewhat less than documentary photography. It’s art-documentary, maybe, or fashion-documentary, but it’s not really documentary photography in spirit.


Amanda, Austin and Brianna during a visit by their uncle Sherman – Charlotte Oestervang

I found Oestervan’s images to be as exploitative as Alvedon’s, albeit in a different way.

Where Alvedon seemed to have selected his subjects for their aesthetic appeal, Oestervang appears to have chosen – or perhaps stage-managed – images that present the subjects as ‘freakish’.

There’s a real Arbus-gone-rustic vibe to these images (an influence recognised on the artist’s own website). The subjects are depicted as variously crazed, backward, obese and poor – all ‘hillbilly’ stereotypes.

I did find this project to be closer to the spirit of documentary photography than Alvedon’s images, yet still came away with the distasteful conclusion that both went into their respective projects with motives that don’t end up representing the subjects in a particularly dignified way


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

Richard Avedon’s Ruthless Eye http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A1633-2004Oct1.html (accessed 09/05/2016)

http://www.oca-student.com/resource-type/foto861appalachian (accessed 09/05/2016)

http://www.oestervang.dk (accessed 09/05/2016)


2 thoughts on “Exercise: Avedon and Oestervang

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