Jay McGill

Avedon's Drifters

After wall on wall of
the important, fashionable or glamorous,
famed pictures of the famous
in his 2002 exhibition at the Met, it's unexpectedly

in the last gallery-space
that we confront
Richard Avedon's portraits
of sky-eyed losers -

these shrunken-bellied rueful old boys
dapper in Western-style duds,
or no-longer-youthful tumbleweeds
with a gleam of wildness not yet wholly dulled -

encountered at obscure and remote
locations undepicted (each subject
framed on white stark as for an ID shot)

but commemorated in all the poetry
and desolation
of a road-number, a named place
passed through once:

"Clarence Lippand, drifter,
Interstate 80, Sparks, Nevada, 1983";

"James Kimberlin, drifter,
State Road 11, Hobbs, New Mexico, 1980";

"Clifford Feldner, unemployed ranch hand,
Golden, Colorado, 1983";

"Alan Silvey, drifter,
Route 93, Chloride, Nevada, 1980":

lives gone awry in America, though each
in Whitman's words
was a child once
sleeping in his mother's bedroom.

And we are moved
by these faces, by their grievous
dignity, we are halted
in passing (see how scrutinising faces

among a queue-dense wet-Sunday public are
ennobled by sympathy,
by a troubled intentness
- this on the faces of urbanite Noo Yawkers

who in the pavement's flow ignore daily
and all week the sight
of other persons
adrift, deracinate or feral).

Yet something too shrinks back
at these photographs,
some diffidence or

since which of us could imagine singling out
each out-of-luck stranger
in a bar forecourt or at a roadside,
brokering the fee for the shots?

Perhaps in all human empathy,
all art, a ruthless prurience lies visible
like a watermark
at a certain angle to the light.

Either way, here on display,
in that moment's monochrome daylight
not harsh but printed
freckle-clear, pore-clear

and bigger than life-size
are these vagabond drinkers
or feckless workhands
whom ordinarily the tactful eye slides past,

undependable or disappointment-wounded
sons or husbands
of the fugitive kind, caught
before they edge away out of focus again:

guys of whom all their lives it was said
that they were never, ever there.

(Richard Avedon, 1923-2004)