A Deconstruction of the American West

In a book recently published by Mack, Sam Contis engages with the enduring image of the American West - one that Hollywood, mass media, and the history of American photography have imprinted into the collective psyche. 

© Sam Contis, from her book, Deep Springs

Set in a high desert valley of California, Deep Springs College is the incarnation of the American West - a male-only institution dispensing high quality education along with farming duties. Every year, only 10 to 15 students are enrolled in the program, each ready for 12 months of wearing cowboy hats and taking care of large cattle after dense days of political theory and other chemistry courses. A cluster of mountains occasionally topped with snow, horses’ manes tousled by the open wind, mud-covered torsos and dusty nails: everything here would fit the visual Western folklore.

When photographer Sam Contis heard of it from previous Deep Springs students, she was intrigued by how disconnected it actually was from these stereotypes. Masculinity, in a place where gender studies is a mandatory course, doesn’t necessarily rhyme with roughness - having encountered crying men, androgynous cow-boys, and sensitive souls, she resolved to break with the established iconography of the American West. Diving into the photographic archive of the school, she also came across touching images of men cutting each other's hair and jumping into a quiet lake - all dating back to the founding of the college, in 1917, and confirming her vision.

© Sam Contis, spread from the book, Deep Springs

In a book recently published with Mack, Contis mixes some of those old photographs with her own, playing on similarities of sceneries and mood - men on horseback seen from ahigh, curves of the valley, and the neighbouring slopes mimicking those of the student’s muscles. Sensuality forms a large part of her myth deconstruction apparatus. She takes close-ups of bodies - back lines amplified with shadows, wet hair falling on the neck, arms and shoulders entwined in an embrace that could be a hug or a tussle - and then features those images next to a landscape, as if to draw a parallel between space and body; between wilderness and intimacy.

Even visually harsh scenes take on sensitive accents. Bloody tasks focus on hands as a means of expression: precise, evocative, tender, sometimes intentionally ambiguous. From a beheaded wild pig, she shoots a quiet picture, its eyes gently closed, its head held in front of a pick-up whose body reflects a shadow seeming to restore the animal’s corpse. Making use of rigorous framing, Contis plays on overlapping human and natural elements. And just like that, a man turns into a centaur, somehow incarnating another myth, far from Hollywood.

© Sam Contis, from her book, Deep Springs

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Deep Springs by Sam Contis

Publication Date: May 2017 // Editions Mack Books // 152 pages, 24 cm x 28.8 cm // €40.00 / $45.00

BUY HERE

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Sam Contis is a documentary photographer exploring notions of place, identity, and gender in the American West.

Laurence Cornet is a writer and curator based in Brooklyn focusing on cultural and environmental issues.

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