Promising to discover how people really live in our nation’s highly symbolic, deeply mythologized frontier, two Swedes venture to the American West with pen and camera. They take the winning material to a designer and, as a group, produce a beautifully crafted object full of candid images, white space (so coveted by, yet often unavailable to, print designers), bold fonts and thick matte paper that holds rich color.
West, I’m sure, will appear on bookshelves in high-end gift shops in Bozeman, Mont., Jackson Hole, Wyo., Aspen, Colo., and Taos, but despite a few illuminating suggestions that Western myths have outlived themselves, the book more or less upholds the view of the US as a cowboy nation, at times evoking language found in novels by Owen Wister, Max Brand and Zane Grey.
“The mug between the hands of the man; all these years of dirt and sand, of dust filling the pores, etched in underneath the skin, of torn and snared fingers, of breathless sweat and taut muscles and rigid leather and tight reins and the wild gallop in an almost century-old cloud of flying western particles. All these deposits of black beverage and impregnated tobacco,” Lars Åberg writes.
The American West remains the world frontier, symbolizing and encapsulating the central conflicts of our time: self-determination versus collaboration, for example, or property rights versus preservation. Here, opposites converge: Progress meets tradition; urban sophistication meets wild imagination; and individuality meets community. From the West, myths and legends take flight on the wings of bald eagles, promising an untamed wilderness where a person can re-create himself in any image he so desires.
Having myself lived in the West for nearly half my life, I have witnessed those myths intersecting and colliding with my own experiences. I’m troubled by the thought that, much of the land being owned by out-of-state investors and second-home owners, the West as a bastion of freedom exists only as an idea for tourists. The gift stores selling Christmas ornaments, year-round, speak to that other American ideal, capitalism, with little concern that the plastic cowboy or Indian dangling from the end of a string represents not only a fraction of the Western image, but also an ideal on the decline.
Meanwhile, real Westerners, in particular young Westerners, are beginning to ask more questions about how this land became “American.” They’re turning their love for outdoor recreation into concern for ecological preservation. From feed grounds that impinge on wildlife corridors to transportation and packaging, the cattle industry produces more waste than young Westerners want to be responsible for or associated with.
For all the beautiful photographs by Lars Strandberg, the poetic language by Åberg and the vocal design by Ronnie Nilsson, West all but avoids these changing western ideals—often summed up with the term “New West”—instead laboring the notion of the West as a place people go to be alone or providing a platform for ranchers who want to rail against the federal government for movements to push cattle off of public lands.
With chapters titled, for instance, “Rodeo,” “Pueblo,” “Wild Horses,” “Lonely Road” and “Cowboy Poetry,” the book isn’t wrong about its portrayal of the American frontier. It’s just selective.
However, with a title as ambitious as West, you’d think the Swedish triumvirate would have included a chapter titled “Pine Beetles,” perhaps, or one titled “Water,” or perhaps one named after the perennial western issue, “Wolves.”
I might have known better, considering the back cover opens with a variation of the phrase made popular by the Irish band U2: “Outside is America.”
By Lars Strandberg,
Lars Åberg and Ronnie Nilsson
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