Lambda Print mounted on plexi, 30" x 50 ", 2006
“…the closing of the western frontier in the United States did not spell the death knell for naturalistic nationalism. In historiography, in fiction, in film, art, literature, and public rhetoric, the frontier lived on. In this manner, the idea of western landscape as a source of national distinctiveness persisted, even as American nature came to be named and framed with a narrative which nationalized the West.”
–Eric Kaufman, Naturalizing the Nation: The Rise of Naturalistic Nationalism in the United States and Canada.
DEFENDING THE FRONTIER
Various sizes. Lambda Prints mounted on plexiglass.
By the middle of the twentieth century the once untamed naturally thriving western frontier teemed instead with rapid (sub)urbanization and domestication as tourists, land speculators, and settlers less charmed to homesteading, traveled by every bisecting byway, highway, or railway to consume majestic sites and snatch up dirt cheap soil before an overpriced synthetic way of life swamped these plains, mountains, and deserts. But ironically, as the American West became less wild its past nationalized, becoming America’s present notion of self embodied in the figure of the cowboy. Since, as only vestiges that confirm American-ness in all its glory and gluttony linger throughout the landscape—most visibly on a horizon now behind rather than ahead of our progress—nostalgic cultural trends serve to historicize numerous natural sites throughout the West moments before they slip beneath the contractor’s bulldozer, in an effort to preserve the memory of all that once made America an idea seemingly worth aspiring to achieve.
Thus, it was (and is) only as nature became (and becomes) truly “conquered” and controlled by (sub)urbanization that the frontier myth reached (and reaches) heights of unprecedented popularity, and perhaps even necessity as it equates American ideals to symbols, even as those symbols in all their natural grandeur cease to exist anywhere other than in our collective memory. In this frontier myth, the cowboy, whether fording river rapids, sleeping beneath only a blanket of stars, or trotting across endless prairies toward what he knows not, bravely crosses regional and cultural boundaries and distinctions, at once interacting with nature and the ‘primitive’ (Indian tribes before they became Native American groups), while carrying culture and technological progress in his saddlebags. Though unshaven, he is nonetheless stately; though leather-clad, he is nonetheless the picture of urbanity in an otherwise crude landscape; he prospers as a hybrid, a colonist shedding the ways and wears of his European ancestry as nature’s raw powers dictate he become a new breed profoundly different and certifiably American. A colonist no more, for colonization brings with it too many negative connotations, he, while still a settler, is nobler, though more rugged; compassionate, though rougher than before. He exists to the present as a cowboy, but only because the frontier previously demanded that he be nothing less. As such, the effect of the environment on the settler, this colonist evolved into a cowboy, is the privileged perspective in defining the American psyche (placed on a pedestal even above that of the settler’s effect on the environment).
This photographic series and video installation supposes that as America’s urban and suburban centers continue to develop, the frontier myth populated by the heroic cowboy should be amended accordingly. If America perceives its essence as entwined with the cowboy as shaped by his landscape, then the cowboy should reflect what his landscape has and will become. In an effort to anticipate the myth’s potential changes, these photographs re-shoot the image of the cowboy in his present landscape, while remaining true to the American rationale for what the cowboy was to determine whether this interpretation of the icon as one of freedom, independence, fearlessness, and steadfast moral values constructs a romantic narrative justifying a nationalistic agenda that is especially attractive in an era of increased militarization, surveillance, and urban development both of the American frontier turned ‘homeland’ and the rest of the world.
I intend through this body of work to experiment with these nostalgic images of the West and pose the following questions of the perceived American self in comparison to the actual American self, whether he be cowboy in his mythological sense or cowboy as yet to be defined: What happens when we contrast the images of the frontier myth with a more present spatial reality? What repetitive visual or behavioral patterns emerge? Are these patterns the America we know or something other? Are they the America we wish to know or an America far removed from our romanticized past?
These photographs were taken in Missouri, on the road from St. Louis, self-styled gateway to the West, to Independence, near where both the Santa Fe and Oregon trails originate.
Lambda Print mounted on plexi, 30 " x 24", 2006