James Kimberlin, drifter, State Road 18, Hobbs, New Mexico, October 7, 1980_web.jpg

Richard Avedon, James Kimberlin, drifter, State Road 18, Hobbs, New Mexico, October 7, 1980, 1984-1985, gelatin silver print, 50-1/8" × 39-1/4" (127.3 cm × 99.7 cm) © The Richard Avedon Foundation

Photography in Focus

Richard Avedon

James Kimberlin, drifter

By Kimberly Jones

On the occasion of the late Richard Avedon’s 97th birthday, we look closely at his photograph James Kimberlin, Drifter, State Road 18, Hobbs, New Mexico (October 7, 1980), from his series In the American West.

From 1978 to 1984, over the course of 5 summers and across 13 states, Avedon photographed coal miners, farmers, carnival workers, waitresses, slaughterhouse laborers, prisoners, drifters, and others against a bare, portable white background, documenting these often invisible inhabitants of the American West. The resulting larger than life-size portraits were revolutionary in their unromantic yet reverent portrayal of ordinary working people in this frequently ignored segment of society.

Avedon depicts Kimberlin from the waist up, his head cocked to reveal a cautious, almost suspicious, gaze. His face is weather-worn and etched by time; his hair windblown; the neat but unwashed appearance of his clothing indicative, perhaps, of the transitory nature of his existence. In these vivid visual details, the viewer can feel something of his hard life. In its stark and courageous presentation, this portrait compels us to confront uncomfortable social truths: the struggles of the working class, the harsh reality of rural life, and the personal circumstances of those on the fringes of society. Avedon commented: “If I have one goal for these photographs it’s that people will pay attention to them and say, ‘That could be me.’“

If I have one goal for these photographs it’s that people will pay attention to them and say, ‘That could be me.’

Richard Avedon

Essays — Photography in Focus: Richard Avedon, May 15, 2020