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.

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Michael Paglia is an art historian and writer whose columns have appeared in Westword since 1995; his essays on the visual arts have also been published in national periodicals including Art News, Architecture, Art Ltd., Modernism, Art & Auction and Sculpture Magazine. He taught art history at the University of Colorado Denver.
Contact: Michael Paglia