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.”