FMP, Contextual Research - Women Photographers Reclaim the American West

Justine Kurland, ‘Prospecting the South Fork River’ (2008)

In her recent article,  ‘Three Women Photographers Reclaim the American Landscape’ writer Rebecca Bengal brings together a number of female  photographers who, to use her words, are ‘deconstructing the mythology of the Wild West’. The article opens with a mention of Debora Bright’s ’Of Mother Nature and Marlboro Men’, an essay that we read during the Informing Contexts Unit. In this essay Bengal notes. “Deborah Bright called for women artists to “recoup landscape photography for themselves in response to its long-time character as an exclusive white male preserve.” The cherished ideal of the Wild West, metaphoric repository of the American dream, seemed particularly hunted and besieged”. (Bengal, 2019)

Whilst I understand that a disproportionate amount imagery of the American West continues to be made by, or depict, white males, it has not been the the focus of my own work to challenge this. However, gender plays a more prominent role in the work of photographers such as Susan Lipper. Lipper’s book Grapevine made an impactful impression in the early stages of my current work. The intimacy between Lipper and her subjects is clear in her images, and it drove me to foster deeper relationships with those I am photographing. Revisiting the work now, I see that her images strongly emphasize the polarized roles of men and women in rural communities. Her photographs which, to an extent, are staged or dramatized, depict males brandishing guns, drinking beer, making fires, whilst females care for children, fix their hair or expose their breasts to the camera.    

Susan Lipper, Images from the series Grapevine (1988-92)

Lipper’s following series Trip, played on the idea of an archetypical American Road trip - a pastime traditionally dominated by males. Lipper stopped at small towns along I-10 in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas, combining staged scenes and found objects to encourage the viewer to manufacture a fictional narrative for a road trip that didn’t really happen.

Domesticated Land, Susan Lipper, 2018. Published by MACK

Her most recent work Domesticated Land, which focuses on the Californian Desert, is the last in this trilogy of monographs. Again, her role as a female photographer is present in the work - 

‘Her expedition was anchored in a dual search for ‘true’ America and her own territory: a personal, female perspective of a male-driven land, and a new fictional account of a well-trodden narrative’ (Bright, 2019)

In addition to prompting me to revisit the work of Susan Lipper, Bright’s article also introduced me to the work of Kristine Potter. I am particularly interested in her recent series Manifest. Created whilst working in remote areas of Western Colorado, this work explores the archetypal character of the American Cowboy. Bright writes -

‘Potter encounters men who sparingly dot the terrain, seemingly both tethered to, and in divergence with, the myth that precedes them. Manifest does not act as a documentary, but rather as a re-coding of the western myth, the territory and its men, it is both fantasy and reality. Weaving body and landscape, the book lays open the seduction of the West, the opportunities it promises, the disorientation of altitude, and the confrontation of persistent danger.’ (Bright, 2019)

Kristine Potter, From the Series ‘Manifest’ (2012-2015)

Bright’s article, and the work of Lipper and Potter, have reminded me of the dominant position that white, christian males take in traditional depictions of the American West. It has prompted me to look at my own images and analyze the way that I represent both women and men within the western landscape. Appraising my own work, one image stood out to me (below). The image, taken in Shaniko, depicts Shaniko resident Hugh teaching his granddaughter how to shoot a black gunpowder pistol. Whilst I photographed an archetypal male cowboy character, I chose to captured a tender moment. It is the young female holding the gun, the older male playing a nurturing role.   

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