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What I learned from Richard Avedon

Laura Wilson recalls helping famed photographer

For six years beginning in 1979, photographer Laura Wilson assisted Richard Avedon on his landmark “In the American West” portraits, helping the New York legend navigate the U.S. heartland. A quarter-century later, Wilson — the mother of actors Andrew, Owen and Luke — published candid photographs of that collaboration in her book “Avedon at Work.”

Avedon was a huge star, and he had been since the ’50s. There’s no one today who dominates photography the way he did then, and I was a very good student in that I was anxious to learn. Also, I was old enough to recognize what an opportunity I had. I was 39 with three young boys. I wasn’t 22, moaning about how demanding the job might be.

The very first weekend we worked together, we were walking through a stadium for the Rattlesnake Roundup in Sweetwater, Texas, and Dick said to me, “Which face would you choose?” I thought to myself, “You’re the famous photographer. You tell me,” but what he was doing was putting me on the spot right from the beginning to force me to look and to learn.

Whether he was considering a cowboy or a coal miner, Avedon would always ask, “Is that face going to hold the wall and be as riveting six years from now?” When you take a person out of context — out of the mine, out from beside the road with a vast expanse of Oklahoma prairie behind him — then you really have to have a face that’s going to say something.

From working with Avedon, I now know the strength of a portrait. It makes me impatient to see the work of photographers who consider themselves portraitists when they choose a face that is in fact boring because it has no complexity or depth. It isn’t about being handsome or pretty or beautiful. It’s something else. It’s the contradiction within a face that makes it riveting.

After the six-year project, Dick continued his career, and I began my own. And then, in the last couple months of his life, he called and asked if I would help him on a big project he was doing for the New Yorker called “On Democracy.”

He wanted to return to Texas, and we photographed at Fort Hood and in San Antonio, where he unexpectedly died. He was 81 and taking pictures right up until the last day.

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