Cowboys, Indians and Atomic Bombs

There is no region in the United States more firmly implanted in the popular imagination of the world than the American West. The images are romantic ones and have a long history. A rough-and-tumble Western mining town, for example, is the setting for a Giacomo Puccini opera--chosen, no doubt, because it conjured up the same exotic ambiance for the nineteenth-century audience as did other remote locales in which Italian operas are set, such as Egypt and Japan.

But like the spectacle of frontiersmen and saloon girls singing to each other in Italian in a mountain mining town, these images were often mythic and fantastical, rather than reflecting the actual character of the place. It's the dialogue between myth and reality that, through either example or critique, connects three must-see traveling photo shows currently on view around town. At the reliable Arvada Center, The Last Cowboy: Photographs by Adam Jahiel reflects contemporary ranch life. Indians are the focus at the Denver Art Museum in Partial Recall: Photographs of Native North Americans. And then there's American Ground Zero: The Secret Nuclear War, a show at the University of Denver's Shwayder gallery that takes as its topic something that tends not to have a place in the world's heart the way cowboys and Indians do: atomic weapons testing in Nevada.

Put Wyoming-based photographer Jahiel firmly in the misty-eyed nostalgic camp. And for him, this is not a shortcoming. Taking as his subject for this seven-year project the professional working cowboys who travel a circuit of ranches in the Great Basin region of Nevada, Oregon and Idaho, Jahiel transforms the men, pictured either at their daily labors or at rest, into heroic subjects--despite the photographer's protestations that he was searching for "the real thing." Some of these gorgeous, large-format black-and-white photographs are portraits from the domestic life of the ranches. Others depict the cowboy working, most often on horseback, and typically as a central part of a landscape.

The portraits are different from the other photographs in a crucial way: The subjects knew they were being photographed. And it's apparent that the cowboys were completely at ease with Jahiel. These portraits have the same "snapshot" quality of daily life that is at the core of the candid photos. In one of the portraits, 1993's "T.J. Brown #2," the handsome young cowboy leaning forward on a split-rail fence looks out at us with piercing, light-colored eyes. And though viewers are assured by his clothing that he's a contemporary, the cowboy also wears things that suggest a scene from the last century: His forearms are covered with woven leather gauntlets as protection from the lasso, and his mustache has been waxed into a handlebar.

The same kind of time warp is rendered more subtly in the 1994 photo "The Couch," which could be a scene from a hundred years ago except for the ratty 1930s couch of the title. The two cowboys, the white-painted wooden rails on which horseshoes hang and the fieldstone wall all look like last century's leftovers.

The photographs of the cowboys working are where Jahiel has really given his nostalgia free reign. These dramatic photos recall the great historic paintings of artists such as Frederic Remington and Charles Russell. Because Jahiel has perfectly framed his subjects, it's hard to believe these photos were not formally posed. But then again, a bucking bronco has little patience for modeling, so the beautiful and lyrical shots must be scenes from the life of the ranches, no matter how fictional and heroic they may seem.

"Rancho Grande," a photo from 1991 in which a green quarter horse has been saddled by cowboy Bobby Lynn, is unforgettable. Set in a circular log corral, the shot shows Lynn standing to the side, bracing himself against the horse he has lassoed; the horse is framed by the tall corral gate that stands behind. In another, quite different 1991 photograph, "Wahoo Bill," the scene is a tight detail of a cowboy on horseback. The cowboy strikes a contrapposto pose as he reaches back to grab the lariat, again recalling the traditional paintings of the West.

Though Jahiel was trained and continues to work in the field of photojournalism, the photos in The Last Cowboy are not documentary ones. Jahiel uses exactly the right point of view for his compositions--often on horseback himself. So his photos have the feeling of having been carefully planned like a work of art instead of being taken on the run like a news photo. Jahiel also heightens the sense of romance and artfulness by sometimes putting the foreground in deep focus, which then throws the principal subject in the mid-ground slightly out of focus. This fuzzy approach makes the photos look like depictions of dreams, fantasies or memories.  

Blurring the line between reality and fiction is the self-conscious theme of Partial Recall at the DAM, an exhibit that combines historic Indian images with the contemporary work of three Native American photographers. Historical realities and mythic truths have been harder on the Indians than they were on the cowboys, so this naturally is a very different show.

Co-curated by former New York art critic and part-time Boulder resident Lucy Lippard, Partial Recall originated at the Tyler School of Art at Temple University in Philadelphia, where the exhibit's other organizer, Don Desmett, is director. Lippard and Desmett's aim is to attack cultural imperialism, a subject elaborated on in text panels that include philosophical musings by some of the nation's premier Native American artists and intellectuals.

The historic images here date from the late nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century and provide a survey of a variety of approaches taken by mostly white photographers. Lippard and Desmett's efforts to illuminate stereotypes come through loud and clear in "Battleford Industrial School Football Team," an anonymous 1897 group shot showing a double line of Indian schoolboys. The boys' hair has been cut short and they wear team sweaters, shorts and knee socks. DAM Native Arts curator Nancy Blomberg notes the "defiant" expression on several of the boys' faces, but viewers will be hard-pressed to miss those who simply look sad.

Other photos, though, don't seem to drive home so clearly the points intended by the organizers. In T. Harmon Parkhurst's famous 1940s shot "Four Kossa Clowns," for instance, there's definitely an emphatic interaction between Parkhurst and the clowns--and it's totally positive, just like Jahiel's relationship to the cowboys.

The three contemporary artists included--Hulleah Tsinhnahjinnie, David Neel and Jolene Richard--address the struggle of Indians against the dominant American culture. And they also comment on the ability of Native American culture to survive despite efforts by the American and Canadian governments to stifle it. Tsinhnahjinnie displays black-and-white photo enlargements incorporating text, while Neel pairs portraits of elderly subjects in ordinary dress with the same subjects in tribal costume. Richard creates montages, some in color, that juxtapose her human subjects to handicrafts.

A disappointing aspect of the historic section of Partial Recall is the fact that the early photos are represented not by the originals but by new photo enlargements dry-mounted to paper board. Now, really. How hard would it have been to get originals? Not very, since large public institutions have quite a bit of this kind of material on hand. Such photographs are found from coast to coast--and at both the DAM itself and the Colorado History Museum, which have major collections of Western photos from the period in question.

Like Partial Recall, the riveting show at the Shwayder combines photos with text panels. But where in the DAM exhibit the text is meant to illuminate the photographs, in the case of American Ground Zero, it's the photographs that supplement the text.

The haunting black-and-white portraits and eerie landscapes of Utah captured by New York photographer Carole Gallagher are only a small part of the Shwayder show, which was organized by New York's prestigious International Center of Photography. Equally spellbinding are the oral histories that Gallagher assembled in the more than a decade she worked on this project. Hung on the wall next to the storytellers' portraits, these accounts of what it was like to live around nuclear-testing sites overshadow everything else.

Take, for instance, Ken Case, known as the "Atomic Cowboy," whose job it was to run cattle over ground zero soon after a detonation. Case was on the sites before anyone else, and his cattle wore the "AEC" brand--short for Atomic Energy Commission. No nostalgic associations there, pardner. Case, like so many others pictured in the show, died of cancer from fallout that the AEC assured workers and townspeople was harmless. That the commission continues to cling to this outlandish claim in a fourteen-year-long court battle with those who were exposed is a leitmotif of Gallagher's show.

There's a lot of hair-raising stuff in this exhibit, like claims by Army soldiers that they saw burnt animals in cages and burnt human skeletons handcuffed to fences at ground-zero sites. The AEC denies that either animals or humans were subjected to such horrors. But in an apparent response, Gallagher includes a photo of a still-standing (at least when she took the photograph in the 1980s) row of animal pens on the Frenchman Flat bomb site. The show also tells the story of Howard Hughes's forgettable film The Conqueror, in which John Wayne had the acting challenge of portraying Genghis Khan while downwind from nuclear testing in Snow Canyon, Nevada. Ninety-one people who worked on that film died from cancer, the Duke included.

In addition to championing the victims of government testing, Gallagher skewers those who conducted the experiments. The description of a pet project of Edward Teller's--"Plowshare," in which nuclear weapons would be exploded to help dig out Western reservoirs--makes a convincing argument that the brilliant physicist was also a too-influential crackpot.  

Certainly Denver viewers are not strangers to art exhibits that focus on Western topics. But this year the number of these Western wares is reaching critical mass. It's a good thing, too: Though our fame is great abroad, those of us who live here too often lack a sense of place. That is a malady that these three shows will help to cure.

The Last Cowboy, through April 1 at the Arvada Center, 6901 Wadsworth Boulevard, Arvada, 431-3083.

Partial Recall, through April 28 at the Denver Art Museum, 100 West 14th Avenue Parkway, 640-2793.

American Ground Zero, through March 16 at the University of Denver's Shwayder gallery, 2121 East Asbury Street, 278-3693.

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