© Lucas Foglia
What motivates people to live where they do? And when living is tough, what motivates them to stay? For the cowboys and miners depicted in Lucas Foglia’s Frontcountry, a monograph recently published by Nazraeli Press that explores sparsely populated areas of Wyoming, Nevada, Texas, Montana and Idaho, the mythology of the cowboy lifestyle is at least part of the draw. That mythology persists despite the difficulty of actually carving out an existence through agriculture.
Foglia first traveled in Wyoming with a reporter friend in 2006 as he was finishing his first book, A Natural Order, which depicted communities of people living off the grid in the Southeastern United States. He was looking for a new project at the time and the images of the American West “stuck in my head,” he says. “The communities I visited felt smaller and the land bigger and harsher, more remote, than anything I’d seen or experienced before.”
The landscape drew him in, as did the people who chose to live in it. In the areas and communities in which Foglia traveled and created this work, the people he met were “either cowboys or they were working for mines,” he says. “That idea that this wild, harsh landscape supported two very different lifestyles, and the fact that both lifestyles extract from that landscape, brought me back to photograph.”
In Foglia’s images we see ranchers and their children mostly at work, training horses or herding cattle or hunting coyotes. There are glimpses of county fairs, school sports, church gatherings and other community activities. Most often the images depict lone figures in vast landscapes. Photographs of mining workers and the small towns built up to serve them evoke a similar sense of isolation.
Landscapes and detail photographs establish the context. We see a loan office interior, with its wood paneling and two green chairs for hopeful applicants, or a saloon’s back porch, next to which is a massive pile of empties in black bags. We see gold mines, a natural gas field, a power plant spewing a thick plume of smoke over a vast, snow-covered landscape.
Foglia met the people he photographed through referrals, gaining their trust because he “was introduced to them by someone they trusted,” he says. “On my first trip to Wyoming I met a cattle rancher in Star Valley and he asked me to go to church with him. I’m a Jewish agnostic from New York, but I went to church and I met a whole community through him,” he recalls. The isolation people live in means “they also live in very close communities. As a stranger it’s very hard to be welcomed in, but if you know somebody you can meet the whole town.”
Foglia funded the work through a combination of print sales, licensing and occasional magazine assignments. “The photographs that I make for my books are shown in galleries or institutions, hung on the walls of the people I photograph, published as magazine stories and used by organizations for advocacy.”
Just as the network of people he photographed for Frontcountry grew socially, so have his career opportunities, he says. While at Houston Fotofest in 2008, for instance, he took a group of people to a Texas line dance at a bar he knew of. One of those people was Mark Sink, a curator from Denver. They stayed in touch and Sink eventually invited him to show his photographs at the Museum of Contemporary Art Denver. “The solo show at the MCA happened, in part, because we went dancing,” Foglia explains. “My whole world works that way.” Similarly, a friend introduced him to Tara Guertin at AFAR magazine. Guertin later called him for an assignment in Silverton, Texas, and three photographs from that shoot are in the book.
The only text in Frontcountry is a monologue by Olan Clifford Teel, a cowboy in Wells, Nevada. “People who grew up here helped their parents ranch,” he says. “They know what it feels like to feed cattle when it’s 30 [degrees] below zero. They know that life, and many don’t want it.” Living in town and working for the mines is easier, Teel says. Yet when the mining company moves on, “The miners leave and then the other jobs leave, too. The land is scarred and the town is scarred.”
Foglia grew up on a farm, and while he doesn’t want his images to “idealize agriculture,” he says, “I do think that farming and ranching, if done well, can be sustainable.” But, he adds, “It’s hard for ranching communities to have enough income to pay for new roads” and sustain a town in a remote area. Communities that thrive do so because of the mining industry, which has a lifecycle. “Every mine goes bust eventually,” Foglia notes. What will happen to these communities when the mines are tapped out seems inevitable: Ghost towns are another fixture of Western mythology.