By Vince Aletti
The young photographer makes a knockout New York début, with big color landscapes and portraits of the American West. Foglia’s subject–the boom-and-bust impact of mining on rural Montana, Nevada, Wyoming and nearby states–isn’t obvious at first glance. Yet every picture has weight and a sure sense of place and (sometimes eccentric) character. In one image, a man wearing only a cowboy hat, boots, a bandanna and boxers lumbers through falling snow. Like Alec Soth, Foglia constructs loose narratives rooted in the American landscape. Their meaning is illusive; their beauty is plain as day. (Fredericks & Freiser, 536 W. 24th St. 212-633-6555.)
5 Must-See Gallery Shows in New York
Photographs taken in Montana, Texas, and Wyoming, among other places, capture ordinary people in an extraordinary manner. An image of two girls near a Gatorade cooler becomes a study in conflicting geometries, thanks to a grid of shadow nearly obscuring them; elsewhere, photos of coal mines, rodeos, and the West’s breathtaking emptiness are equally arresting. The stand-out is “Soccer Practice, Star Valley Braves, Afton, Wyoming,” 2010, in which a cluster of teenage players are arranged with all the drama of the soldiers on the Iwo Jima memorial, vying for a high-altitude ball that is out of the frame. Behind them, the impossibly intense mountain backdrop looks almost implausible, as if Foglia has Photoshopped in the crisp peaks adorning a Coors Light bottle. The entire series is also collected in a just-published monograph from Nazraeli Press.
By Loring Knoblauch
Lucas Foglia’s new images of the American West are the kind of pictures that will shore up your faith in the power of traditional, camera-based photography. There are no arcane conceptual theories being tested here, no earnest antique processes being used, no tricky software manipulations or iterative transformations – just plain old put your camera in the right place and click the shutter photography, and yet, I’ve hardly seen a show all year that delivered such consistent and controlled compositional elegance.
It would be all too easy to spend time considering the complex content in these photographs – the meaningful contrasts between ranching and mining, the relentlessness of the boom and bust cycles that have repeatedly built and destroyed the West, the myths and modern realities of the heroic cowboy, and the small town lives and rural traditions that often get lost in all the shuffle. Foglia’s pictures confidently touch on all of these themes and motifs, but it’s not their raw subject matter that makes them durably memorable. It is the subtle craftsmanship of these images that made me nod my head in admiration.
In the edit of images on view in this gallery show, nearly every picture has been put together with a sharp eye for composition, with meticulous formal attention paid to framing, linear vanishing points, and gestural movements. If you thought there was no place for ballet in the modern West, think again – bronc riders do warm up stretching using metal fencing just like a ballet barre, while a man shooting coyotes from a fencepost executes a gun toting twirl on one leg like an arabesque.
Foglia evokes the romance of the West with glorious billowing towers of wildfire smoke worthy of the clouds of Thomas Cole or John Constable and a rearing horse in training that’s a dead ringer for David’s Napoleon Crossing the Alps. The portrait of Amanda, with the cool water from the hose pouring over her head, is a serene modern Madonna of the mountains, in dripping blue.
Foglia’s emphasis on the lines in the geography (both man made and natural) is perhaps the single most commonly used tool in his visual toolbox. A rancher sits in his truck while moving lines of cattle along an arrow straight line of snow bracketed blacktop. A man holds a puzzlingly straight up rope to a hot air balloon (in the sky, out of the frame), standing on another dusty road to nowhere. Mining roads are streaked with curves of rusty orange residue, or are perfectly graded, aside from the off kilter angle of a fallen road sign. Vertical power plant towers loom straight out of impossibly black hills of coal, or exhale an endless trail of puffy smoke that echoes the whiteness of the frozen land below.
The unexpected contrast is another effective compositional technique at Foglia’s disposal: teenagers playing soccer expectantly looking away from the glorious mountains in the backdrop, or guys drinking beers in the scrub under the overhang of frozen glacial ice. In these images, the indescribable scale of the land subtly lurks behind its inhabitants.
Taken together, Foglia’s photographs find their way to a balanced middle ground, sitting at neither extreme usually found in the iconic photography of the American West, borrowing liberally from both the magnificent unblemished landscape and the caustic environmental screed schools of thought. His pictures are universally well-proportioned and refined, finding quiet moments of grace in the unlikeliest of places, from dusty roads to polluted runoffs, from Sunday best church clothes to herds of elk on the horizon. In the end, it’s a cracklingly accomplished body of work.
By Chris Waywell
Huge skies, rearing horses, jail cells and men in hats: at first glance all the mythic elements of the American West are present in Lucas Foglia’s photographs. Taken over several years in the vast, sparsely populated states of Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming, they hint at ways of life unchanged in a century or more: simple, noble, perhaps a little naïve. But all is not what it seems. In fact, these are communities in terrible flux, riven by a struggle between the past and the future, as a giant business machine tears apart the landscape in mines and power plants.
Foglia’s great achievement as a photographer is to suggest these tensions as much by composition as by subject matter. A huge bearded man arcs backwards as he trains with weights, his shape echoed by the arch of the plastic shed he’s standing in. A coyote hunter balances precariously on a fence post, rifle in hand. A rodeo rider stretches a hamstring in a posture of mourning.
Elsewhere there are nods to William Eggleston in the plastic primness of a bank loan office, and a high-school football game against a backdrop of towering peaks. And there is war: it’s never explicit, but it’s there in the bleak valleys and the billowing smoke from wildfires, even in a grimy digger toiling up a mountain of coal towards a strange, turret-like chimney. While this isn’t war photography per se, these are the people, Foglia seems to be saying, caught up on the US home front, a place as pitiless in its way as any in the Wild West or the Middle East.
By Sean O’Hagan
Between 2006 and 2013, Lucas Foglia journeyed through the vast open spaces of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming. It was a trip that challenged all his preconceptions about the American west. “When I first travelled there, the communities I encountered felt small and the land felt bigger, harsher and more remote than anything I had experienced. And in the midst of the global economic recession, the mining industry was booming.”
The end result is a book called Frontcountry, in which the 60,000 photographs he took over those seven years are distilled to a mere 60. In them, the contradictions of the contemporary American west are palpable. His is a style that merges landscape photography and heightened portraiture, familiar from his previous book A Natural Order. An exhibition of his new work is also on at Michael Hoppen gallery in London.
Whereas A Natural Order looked at people who lived off the grid in the American backwoods – drifters, Christian communities, back-to-the-land hippies, survivalists – Frontcountry illuminates the stark contrast between, as Foglia puts it, “two very different lifestyles – ranching and mining – that share and depend on the same landscape”. Foglia’s book begins as an evocation of a way of life that still endures: contemporary cowboys on horseback or waiting to perform in a rodeo; ranchers who patrol their vast tracts of land in pickup trucks. In one striking image, a rancher steps out of his vehicle to stare at what looks like a billowing cloud but is, in fact, an approaching firestorm.
Foglia deftly plays with our – and his – preconceived ideas of the west as an almost mythic place, where cowboys have made certain accommodations to the present, but are still essentially cowboys at heart – macho, hard-working, Stetson-wearing frontiersmen who have remained faithful to a steadfastly old-fashioned, and essentially American, way of life.
When I first met Foglia, he described himself as a documentary photographer collaborating with his subjects to search for some essential truth about their lives. His working method relies on befriending one or two people, who then give him an “in” to a community. He is not averse to instructing subjects about what he needs before he shoots, hence the almost symbolic nature of some portraits – a trio of cowboys stretching before a rodeo like extras from Brokeback Mountain; a beautiful girl washing her hair outdoors with a hose; a man aiming a rifle at a cow’s head. The warm natural light of the American west bathes these images in an almost unreal glow that heightens the cinematic sense of place. In another evocative image, a man leans out of his Jeep, surveying two lines of cattle that stretch single-file to the horizon along a straight highway.
In the bridging shots between the first and second halves of the book, one senses other forces at play: economic as well as elemental. My eye was arrested by an image of a gaggle of young men in soccer strips awaiting a crossed football that has yet to enter the frame, the pristine turf of their pitch in Afton, Wyoming at odds with the snowy mountains in the background. Elsewhere, the white winter wilderness is stained with the blood of slaughtered livestock or newborn calves. Tradition and modernity are in conflict here and suddenly, joltingly, in the turn of a page, you are looking at a different landscape – scarred, contaminated, defiled.
If the ranching communities have made a living from this harsh landscape by adapting to it, the mining industry is, by definition, a more destructive force. In the context of what has gone before, Foglia’s images of powerplants nestling amid small mountains of coal, huge swathes of land rendered bare and unsustainable and a spill of toxic water flowing from newly fracked rocks are shocking in the extreme.
“Mining concentrates jobs, and helps to pay for towns for the miners to live in,” says Foglia. “And with modern technology, from the use of fracking fluids to extract natural gas and oil, to the use of cyanide to separate gold from rock, land that wasn’t valuable a few decades ago is now being mined.”
Inevitably, there are landscapes in these wildernesses that are being altered beyond recognition, not least because mining of this kind is a nomadic profession. “In Nevada, whole towns are built or abandoned in response to fluctuations in the price of gold,” says Foglia. “All mines have a life cycle. They close once the valuable minerals are extracted, or in response to declines in the price of those minerals. Either way, miners have to move, following jobs across the country.”
Frontcountry, then, is a book of two halves, but taken together, they illustrate the dilemmas of survival for these communities. As well as attracting nomadic workers from all over, the mining industry has provided work for locals, many of whom come from ranching families. The tension between their traditional, more sustainable way of life and a newer, harsher, more exploitative one is at the heart of Foglia’s book – and he is content to raise more questions than he answers with these images that play with, and undercut, our notions of contemporary America.
Foglia’s photographs may, in time, attest to the passing of an older way of life and the landscape that sustained it. The day after we meet, he sends me a quote from a cattle herder called Randy Stowell, who works on the Big Springs Ranch near Oasis, Nevada. It comes close to the heart of the matter. “This little town has nothing. It’s dying on the vine. But when the company opens a mine here, it’ll bring jobs and make everything in town bigger and better. There are people who want that boost to the community. I’m not one of them. The mine will ruin this mountain and you’ll never find land this beautiful anywhere else.”