The Imagined, the Real, and the American West

By Jorg Colberg 

After the Native Americans had been chased off their lands, those very lands were transformed into a gigantic canvas, onto which ideas could be projected. These ideas would manifest themselves either literally, in the form of new towns and industries, or metaphorically, as terms such as the “American West.” After many decades of use and abuse by its new settlers now the land that used to be the clean slate isn't quite so clean any longer. The idea of the American West has found itself increasingly at odds with its actual, physical reality. This development mirrors that of the country itself: the place of unlimited opportunities has manifested itself as having quite a few of those limits, if you're one of the many, many people who are not very wealthy. The promise of unlimited opportunities has started to ring hollow for a great many people, given it is belied both by abstract numbers (for example statistics of income distribution) or by cold, hard facts on the ground.

The increasingly hollow sounding promises notwithstanding, the idea of the American West still is powerful. The American West always was and still is less an actual than an imagined place, resulting in a conflict between the imagined and the real, a conflict between what could be or maybe should be, and what is. This conflict has always provided a fertile ground for people's imaginations. You could move West and make something happen and, while and by doing that, re-invent yourself, almost be born anew. The idea and the place itself thus provide many opportunities for any artist willing to pick up some shards, to make something from them. The history of photography is filled with the medium's practitioners producing work around all the various things there, whether it was Richard Avedon photographing those doing the honest work that wasn't to be had in Manhattan, Lewis Baltz or Robert Adams surveying the increasingly ravaged lands and their human artifacts, or now Tim Richmond with Last Best Hiding Place, a recent addition to the canon.

Richmond's American West is a desolate place filled with cowboys (or men who look like cowboys), and the few women are also at least a little rough around the edges. There are mostly empty roads and what look like desolate towns, with whatever humans being present feeling like tumbleweeds being blown about. Where there are traces of a human hand, they allude to an earlier belief that there still is a promise, a belief that now seems to be mostly gone. Speaking of the canvas that is the American West – it is as if in Richmond's version the canvas showed us what is left after someone tried to rub off old paint to recycle it for a new painting that never happened.

There is a resignation in the faces of those in the Richmond's photographs, hinting at a rough, somewhat hurt, tenderness underneath. What was will never be again, and what is has little promise. Sure, there will be another beer, another cigarette, another bed to sleep in with, maybe, another person. But that next beer or cigarette or guy or girl won't be any different than the previous one. The jobs are gone, not to come back, the storefronts permanently are for rent, and the little towns have caught the gangrene that are the Family Dollar stores. A man named Robert Ray Bajzer – known as “Chicago Bob” - was killed with a knife, and there are $2000 to be had for tips leading to “arrest and conviction.” You just know that's not going to happen.

There is a rough romanticism in Richmond's photographs. You just can't imagine the American West without it: things might be rotten to the core, whether it's in the lawless spaces of the former Wild West or in the lawful, yet hopeless spaces of the current West – but that's just the way things are out there. It's a tough, tough world, offering its wares to those who are just willing enough to go and try it. Fortunes are to be made, certainly still artistic ones. We might as well be honest and admit that photography feeds on misery, on things being rough, destroyed, decayed, fallen down. But photography isn't like a vulture, leaving behind a skeleton that never will live again. Instead, it reminds us of the promises, it reminds us of our actions or inactions. And it reminds us that while what was will never be again, what will be can still be had, what will be can be and should be shaped by us, shaped and built on the ruins of the past.