How and when did the project that became Once Upon a Time in the West start?
The project started in 2007 after a chance stop in Tucumcari, NM. I became enthralled with the town and for the next four years returned whenever I had the opportunity, usually twice a year for a few days at a time. As the project took shape I became aware of the Sergio Leone films that were made in the Almeria region of Spain, a landscape that looks like the American West. One film in particular, For A Few Dollars More, was partially set in a fictionalized Tucumcari. This provided a perfect link for me to photograph there as a companion project.
My work often deals with the tension between reality and artifice. Therefore, the kind of conflict I try to highlight in a photograph, I could think about in a broader context over multiple projects. This opened up creative possibilities for me.
What is your personal connection to this project?
As a boy growing up in Kansas, I felt a particular draw to the West. Where “the West” begins has been a shifting, even contested, local. Once, to be west of the Mississippi River was to be in the West. Today, I think most people imagine a Southwestern landscape and the Pacific coast. I guess for me, the West began in Kansas. There is a romance to the West, which admittedly, I never felt, but seemed to intrigue people I met traveling, especially abroad, when they learned I was from Kansas. Maybe the work started trying to understand what they thought of as the West.
Where did your travels take you and what surprised you about what you saw there?
In addition to photographing in New Mexico, this project took me to southern Spain and across Germany. It was startling to see people from other cultures reenact stories I’d thought of as distinctly American.
How has it changed how you think of American history? Of how outsiders view it?
I tend to read American history with a critical eye. Much of my artwork questions assumptions people historically had, such as the idea of Manifest Destiny. I think by often showcasing facades in my work, one might question the American ideas at their root…. ‘if what I’m looking at isn’t real, what is?’
Who are your artistic influences?
There are many. I’m drawn to August Sander and his ambitious attempt to create a collective portrait of German society in the twentieth century. I was thinking about him as I was trying to portray Tucumcari, and how that one place might be a window into America. I appreciate the stark realism of photographers like Dorothea Lange, most known for her images of depression era America, and writers like John Steinbeck. The characters in Steinbeck’s novel, “The Grapes of Wrath” seemed to populate the New Mexico town where my project started. I’m drawn to the colors and the melancholic sense of isolation in Edward Hopper’s paintings. Richard Prince has long been an influence for me, particularly his “re-photography” of the Marlboro Man and the questions his work raise of authorship and masculinity. When I started working on this project I had a chance to see several Sergio Leone’s films on the big screen, which was a real thrill. I would be amiss not to mention Andrea Robbins and Max Becher, a husband and wife team that also photographed German Indians (specifically the reenactors rather than the theatrical performances most of my images highlight). Alec Soth’s work always excites me; most recently the “Dispatches” he has been doing though his publishing company LBM. As a teacher, I’m influenced by my students that get excited when discovering things for the first time and those that show sincere commitment to their work.