Serious heart inflammations hindered Avedonís health in 1974. The troubling time inspired Avedon to create a compelling collection from a new perspective. In 1979, Avedon was commissioned by Mitchell A. Wilder (1913-1979), the director of the Amon Carter Museum to complete the ďWestern Project.Ē Wilder envisioned the project to portray Avedonís take on the American West. It became a turning point in Avedonís career when he focused on everyday working class subjects such as miners soiled in their work clothes, housewives, farmers and drifters on larger-than-life prints instead of a more traditional options with famous public figures or with the openness and grandeur of the West. The project itself lasted five years concluding with an exhibition and a catalogue. It allowed Avedon and his crew to photograph 762 people and expose approximately 17, 000 sheets of 8 x 10 Tri-X Pan film. The collection identified a story within his subjects of their innermost self, a connection Avedon admits would not have happened if his new sense of mortality through severe heart conditions and aging hadnít occurred. Avedon visited and traveled through state fair rodeos, carnivals, coal mines, oil fields, slaughter houses and prisons to find the right subjects to reveal. In 1994, Avedon revisited his subjects who would later on open up about the In the American West aftermath and its direct effects. Billy Mudd, who was a trucker, went long periods of time on his own away from his family. He was a depressed, disconnected and lonely man before Avedon offered him the chance to be photographed. When he saw his portrait for the first time, Mudd saw that Avedon was able to reveal Muddís true-self and recognized the need for change in his life. The portrait transformed Billy, and led him to quit his job and return to his family. Helen Whitneyís 1996 American Masterís Avedon: Darkness and Light documentary depicts an aging Avedon photographer identifying In the American West as his best body of work. The project was embedded with Avedonís goal to discover new dimensions within himself, from a Jewish photographer from out East who celebrated the lives of famous public figures to an aging man at one of the last chapters of his life to discovering the inner-worlds, and untold stories of his Western rural subjects. During the production period Avedon encountered problems with size availability for quality printing paper. While he experimented with platinum printing he eventually settled on Portriga Rapid, a double-weight, fiber-based gelatin silver paper manufactured by Agfa-Gevaert. Each print required meticulous work, with an average of thirty to forty manipulations. Two exhibition sets of In the American West were printed as artist proofs, one set to remain at the Carter after the exhibition there, and the other, property of the artist, to travel to the subsequent six venues. Overall, the printing took nine months: about 68, 000 square feet of paper were consumed in the process.
While In the American West is one of the Avedonís most notable works, it has often been criticized for falsifying the West through voyeuristic themes and for exploiting his subjects. Critics question why a photographer from the East who traditionally focuses on models or public figures would go out West to capture the working class members who represent hardship and suffering. They argue that Avedon's intentions are to influence and evoke condescending emotions from the audience such as pity while studying the portraits