PaperCity Magazine

PaperCity Dallas September 2023

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Leila McConnell Both my husband and Mitch Wilder liked him very much. Within a month or two of this meeting, Dick flew to Fort Worth. He came to our house. We had three young boys [Luke, Owen, and Andrew Wilson], and he was very interested in our family life. That's when I had a sense of who he was. We went to the Amon Carter, where he saw the museum itself and the exhibition space, and then we had dinner with Mitch Wilder, who was a very unusual museum director in that he was entrepreneurial as well as visually very sophisticated. CA: Letter of a lifetime. LW: Dick said, "I think I'm going to need somebody who will be able to guide me in the West." He wasn't going to say, "I don't really know anything about the West" — which, of course, he didn't, because he had spent his entire working life in New York. He was very embedded in the New York intellectual life, in theater and in literary circles. It was a very stimulating, culturally rich life. I don't know if there is another photographer now who has the same kind of impact and fame that Richard Avedon had at that time. Even Irving Penn, who was a brilliant photographer and very much admired, didn't have the same fame that Dick had. In any case, I wrote him a letter and said that I would very much like to work for him, and I would do anything that he needed done. I agonized over my letter. When he got it, he picked up the phone and called me immediately and said, "Let's do a weekend together in Sweetwater, Texas, for the Rattlesnake Roundup." He wasn't going to commit; he wanted to work with me and see how it went. After the first day at the Sweetwater Rattlesnake Roundup in March 1979, he said, "I want you to work on this project." I was taken aback that he didn't spend more time considering this. He made a good choice, though, because I worked very hard for him. CA: How did you gain access to difficult subjects, such as the miners in Colorado? LW: That mine in Colorado was closed to the public in the sense that outsiders wouldn't have been welcome there. But I was on a plane coming from maybe Montana back to Texas, and I sat next to a man who, after he realized what I was working on, said "You know, if you're interested in coal mining, there's a man who is Mr. Coal in all of Colorado." He gave me the name and telephone number. When I called him, he was willing to allow us access. And once we got where we needed to be, we were a very appealing group. Dick was strange looking to these people at first. He was short in stature, had kinetic energy, and was a New Yorker, but once they got to know him a bit — it would be within 20 minutes or so — they always opened up. He was brilliant at dealing with all kinds of people. CA: The idea of a museum commissioning an entire body of work … LW: It was very unusual. It had never been done before — a photographic project commissioned in advance of seeing the photographs. It was a five-year project. CA: Mitch Wilder sounds like somebody who didn't need to "DICK WANTED TO PHOTOGRAPH THE WEST NOW. HE DIDN'T WANT A ROMANTIC EXTENSION OF A JOHN FORD MOVIE." — Laura Wilson see things beforehand. He understood the artist's vision. Did he and the Amon Carter look at the work along the way? LW: Mitch Wilder died early in the project. He saw only the first work. A new director was hired, and he and the head of the board were not admirers of the work. But they committed to this five-year project, and to their great credit, they kept the commitment. So now we have this amazing body of work. And when you see it now, it's as strong if not stronger than it was when I first saw it in August of 1979. It's an incredible body of work. I was just in New York and saw the portraits at the Gagosian Gallery. It's incredible what Dick did, and how much foresight he had. CA: Were you involved in choosing the subjects of the 752 photographs? LW: I don't know if you've been on the set of a movie, but everything is a pyramid, and everything leads to the top of the pyramid. And that's the director. Every good director Top: Richard Avedon's Clarence Lippard, drifter, Interstate 80, Sparks, Nevada, 8/29/83. Right: Richard Avedon's Richard Garber, drifter, Interstate 15, Provo, Utah, 8/20/80. AMON CARTER MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, FORT WORTH; © THE RICHARD AVEDON FOUNDATION AMON CARTER MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART, FORT WORTH; © THE RICHARD AVEDON FOUNDATION 123

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