From John Wayne to Jeff Bridges, from escapism to jingoism, from open skies to internment camps, the American West is a buoyant metaphor for whatever American mythos one hopes to portray at any given moment. In dual exhibitions, photographers William Albert Allard and Norman Mauskopf invoke several of the West’s specialized groups to confirm the groups’ ownership of the landscape—but also to show that such a point needs confirmation.
In Gone West, Allard, the first and last National Geographic staff photographer, toys with both particularly tread (cowboys) and traditionally misunderstood (Hutterites) subject matter.
His misty color shots of straight-faced cowboys at their cowboy tasks support long-held conceptions of the men: stoic, simple (in a good way), proud and probably deeply afflicted (though they won’t tell you who she is or what she did). Allard’s depictions of cowboys’ (mostly) solitary lives promote that narrative almost like a marketing campaign—and it has wide-reaching appeal.
Indeed, it takes substantial self-control not to light up a Marlboro Red in Verve Gallery of Photography. For that matter, coffee (“Padlock Wagon Boss Floyd Workman and Floyd ‘Smitty’ Smith Cow Camp on the Crow Agency Montana, 1972”), a stiff drink (“Stan Kendall at the Bar, Mountain City, Nevada, 1979”) and an unfettered view of the horizon (“Lone Rider, Texas, 1974”) also seem pretty ideal after a stroll around the gallery.
In contrast to the cowboys, who have long claimed narrative ownership over the West, are Allard’s rarefied photos of the Montana Hutterites, a communal group of Anabaptists comparable to the Amish. The photos follow a tried and true photography mechanism: humanizing the other. Allard presents the Hutterites, as all his subjects, nobly, a portrayal of which the medium of photography is particularly capable. With his careful photos, he conveys that pacifists have feelings too and, look, they play baseball!
Similarly, Mauskopf uses photography sympathetically to promote the unsung people of the West.
For 10 years, Mauskopf photographed New Mexico and its “Hispanics” (a problematic term that enjoys wide usage due to a preference for acknowledging European ancestry over, say, Mexican).
In Descendants, Mauskopf documents New Mexico and its brown people, painting a picture of a rural upbringing, an urban coming-of-age and a religious overtone throughout. Certainly seeing Santa Fe’s locations—Blake’s Lottaburger, El Milagro—rendered in eternal black and white is a joyous experience.
More satisfying is seeing its people.
Like us, their kids need their lunch money pinned to their shirts (“El Rancho, New Mexico, 2002”), date out of their league (“Española, New Mexico, 2001”) and take hairstyle cues from their friends (“Isleta, New Mexico, 2002”).
Both Allard and Mauskopf present humanizing views of their subjects (these are photos of humans after all).
The takeaway from these beautiful images is that their subjects are indelible pieces of the Western landscape. Through Allard and Mauskopf’s photos, communes as well as hydraulics, Catholicism and car stencils also silently stake their claims on the West.
These groups—Hutterites and Hispanics—demand redefinition of the West partly because it’s a moving target, and partly because they lack security in those claims. Somewhere, there is inequality or misunderstanding that needs clearing up. These people are somehow different or exceptional; they are “they.”
The photos ostensibly serve to show how similar to us these Westerners are, but the act of proffering a people pushes them that much further west.