“By the time I was a boy and Dad was trying in his own right to put together a life again, the doubt and defeat in the valley's history had tamped down into a single word. Anyone of Dad's generation always talked of a piece of land where some worn-out family eventually had lost to weather or market prices not as a farm or a ranch or even a homestead, but as a place. All those empty little clearings which ghosted that sage countryside—just the McLoughlin place there by that butte, the Vinton place over this ridge, the Kuhnes place, the Catlin place, the Winters place, the McReynolds place, all the tens of dozens of sites where families lit in the valley or its rimming foothills, couldn't hold on, and drifted off. All of them epitaphed with that barest of words, place.”
-Ivan Doig, This House of Sky
Photography and the American West have been mutually constitutive. After all the birth of photography coincides with the same decade (1840s) as annexation of Texas, the Mexican war, the Oregon treaty, and California gold rush. From the middle of the 19thcentury photography has continuously played a significant role in how the region and its “destiny” have been portrayed within America and the world.
In an 1846 statement to congress, William Gilpin, governor of Colorado, wrote, “The untransacted destiny of the American field is to subdue the continent - to rush over the vast field to the Pacific Ocean - to animate the many hundred millions of its people, and to cheer them upward - to set the principle of self-government at work - to agitate these herculean masses - to establish a new order in human affairs…” In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1902 State of the Union Address he wrote, “This Nation is seated on a continent flanked by two great oceans. It is composed of men the descendants of pioneers, or, in a sense, pioneers themselves; of men winnowed out from among the nations of the Old World by the energy, boldness, and love of adventure found in their own eager hearts.” Encoded in these statements are references to a heroic formation of the American West, the romantic freedoms of the frontier, and the tantalizing possibilities of open space.
Yet, from the very first ambition in the mind of a white man, the “West’s” colonial genesis was and has always been a fictive construct, both in regard to its Eurocentric orientation, and in a myopic failure to recognize the robust indigenous cultures firmly established in this place. Of course, this fictive space ground for the production of literature, film, and art, this setting up a circular economy that perpetuates and amplifies Western tropes.
The photographs here are from an ongoing project that includes landscapes, portraits, and architectural images of the rural American West, that contemplate the drosscape between industry and wildlands, progress and stasis. I’m interested in the legacy pf the myths of the West, and the associated nostalgia, longing and melancholy in tension with the unknowable power of nature and the clumsy legacy of man that seems ongoing.
I must acknowledge that my relationship to the West and my movements within it have been largely influenced by the seduction of western literature, myths, and a pastoral romanticism. Yet, in a postmodern era, I wonder if the West even remains a useful frame of reference. Or, is it only a, “stage without a center,” as contemporary photographer, Robert Adams, described it in relationship to a long line of Western photographers, like Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, and the early surveyors who mapped the landscape. "At their best," he said about these proto-photographers and surveyors, they "accepted limitations and faced space as the anti-theatrical puzzle it is -- a stage without a center. The resulting pictures have an element almost of banality about them." I assume we subsequently map a heroic, or melancholic narrative onto these banal spaces in order to satisfy our nostalgic cravings.
Chinook winds are dry, warm, down-slope, foehn winds that occur on the lee side of mountain ranges in the interior West of North America. Chinook is claimed (incorrectly) by popular folk-etymology to mean “ice-eater.”