In Their Versions of the West, the Landscapes Are Never Empty
May 31, 2018
From 1954 to 1999, Marlboro cigarette advertisements featured a hypermasculine cowboy riding a horse against the backdrop of a Southwestern or Rocky Mountain scene. The images projected a sense of independence and ruggedness within seemingly vast and empty landscapes. They became iconic representations of “the West,” otherwise known as the western United States.
Even relatively recent images like these rely on hundreds of years of visual associations of the West with certain ideals about European-American masculinity, adventure and colonial conquest. So by the time a consumer saw the Marlboro Man on the pages of a glossy magazine, the desired associations arose instantaneously. The Marlboro Man both relies upon and propels a certain mythic vision of the West. But there are so many other visions.
Westward, a year-long exhibition by the San Francisco Arts Commission at City Hall, presents the perspectives of 10 women photographers focusing on the land and people of the West. These artists focus on family, community, subjectivity, the fragility of ecosystems and other subjects often sidelined in popular depictions of the region.
In direct conversation with images of the Marlboro Man is Greta Pratt’s 2016 photograph Fistful of Dollars, Browning, MT, in which two men ride horses on the sidewalk as they approach a general store and pawn shop. Pratt inverts the romantic image of a solitary man riding his horse in the vast emptiness of the West. Instead, these men seem to be using horses as banal modes of transportation; they exist in an ordinary public environment.
But this photograph is also a semiotic nesting doll. The title comes from the name of the general store, which is also the name of a 1964 spaghetti western starring Clint Eastwood. Framed between the two men is a sign advertising a pack of Marlboros for $6.79. Browning, Montana is also the home of the Blackfeet Indian Reservation, and these men are much more likely to be members of that nation than European-American cowboys of American lore.
Pratt’s photographs present the West as a domestic place, an approach similarly taken by Kathya Maria Landeros. Landeros’ work in Westward focuses on Latino communities defined by agricultural economies and immigration. One photograph shows a group of young boys riding bikes on a less-than-verdant lawn between three one-story homes. The photograph captures an almost suburban atmosphere, but the caption reveals that this is actually a federal migrant worker community in the Sacramento Valley.
While the subjects in these works are rural agricultural workers and their families—a more modern archetype of the rural West—Landeros’ work reveals a rejection of the solipsism of the lone cowboy in favor of the creation of community even among those without a consistent place to call home.
From the Marlboro Man to Yosemite Sam, the West is often thought of as a place of maximum masculinity, a place of grit, determination and heroic self-actualization, particularly for cowboys, miners, bikers and the like. The misleadingly named Pacific Ocean can itself be seen as a site of adventure and danger. But in Death Wooed Us, Donna J. Wan presents the California coast in a series of seductive and often airy photographs. Golden Gate Bridge (#6), for example, depicts a small sailboat enveloped by the Golden Gate’s hallmark fog. The scene appears calm, but the insignificance of the boat against the backdrop of the Pacific suggests an inherent danger.
The settings of Death Wooed Us aren't just beautiful sites to Wan—she chose to photograph locations that have attracted those wishing to end their lives. Wan herself was drawn to them when she experienced a severe case of postpartum depression. She says her intention was not to romanticize suicide, but to offer a glimpse into the minds of those who seek out beautiful places in which to die. Though it may take great strength to overcome the desire to end one’s life, Wan is open to and emphasizes this vulnerability.
Long before Wan captured her images, one of the most famous early photographers of the Western United States was Timothy O'Sullivan, a member of a federal geological survey of the region in the 1860s. O’Sullivan’s documentation of the region presents landscapes of profound emptiness often with no reference to local human history, which stretches back more than 10,000 years. Erasure of history is an instrument of colonialism that primes societies to take over that which is not theirs. At the same time, calling attention to this history or re-inserting it into the landscape is an act of reclamation.
Gabrielino/Tongva artist Mercedes Dorame grapples with the disconnection between land and history forced on many Indigenous people through displacement, removal and loss of sovereignty. This is especially true of Dorame's tribe, which was historically located in the Los Angeles area and today lacks even federal recognition. In the series Earth the Same as Heaven - ‘Ooxor ‘Eyaa Tokuupar, Dorame creates and photographs ceremonial interventions into this landscape in order to reconstruct the bonds and cultural memory that have been frayed over generations.
In relatively anonymous settings—all photographs are cropped close, only revealing the familiar flora of Southern California—Dorame places items like sage, feathers, metates, cinnamon, red yarn and a fox pelt in a manner that suggests ritual significance. But whether, for example, a fox pelt encircled by cinnamon has a traditional meaning in Gabrielino/Tongva culture is beside the point. Dorame insists that “the imagined can be equally as powerful as facts,” and whatever the story behind these images, they can be seen as a proactive construction or reconstruction of a relationship between the artist and her family’s history.
The artists in Westward don’t present a unified aesthetic or technique for viewing the West. This is not “the feminine way.” Rather, the exhibition demonstrates the complexity and nuance of the region and its landscapes as well as the prevalence of one very specific perspective that dominates in popular culture. Westward is full of counternarratives while still only scratching the surface.