An interview with Jane Hilton
Dead Eagle Trail: America’s Twenty-First Century Cowboys
144 pages • Schilt Publishing • April 12, 2010 [HB]
The cowboy is the personification of the rural American Dream. The Revolutionary War of 1776, and the Articles of Confederation that established the United States, were driven by the dream of a way of life on a frontier of never-ending possibility. “American social development has been continually beginning over again on the frontier,” the historian Frederick Jackson Turner wrote in 1893. “This perennial rebirth, this fluidity of American life, this expansion westward with its new opportunities, furnish the forces dominating American character.” Although Northern industrialism and the dreams of affluence came to rule the American economy, it is the dream of the Wild West, the frontier, and ultimately the cowboy, that has the strongest hold on the American imagination. It is this hold, and how it is brought to life by the modern cowboy, that is at the heart of Jane Hilton’s Dead Eagle Trail.
The morning I met Hilton she had just returned from Amsterdam with the first printed copy of Dead Eagle Trail: America’s Twenty-First Century Cowboys. The book, and the accompanying exhibition at Host Gallery, is a unique insight into how the cowboy sees himself rather than simply how he is seen. “I wasn’t really interested in photographing them against sunsets, or branding cattle, all the obvious things,” Hilton said. “So I started to take portraits of cowboys at home, in amongst all the things that mean everything in the world to them. The portraits in my opinion have never been seen. That is what is so special about the book. Otherwise it wouldn’t stand out.”
Hilton has been photographing the American way of life since 1988. Her work explores the diverse ways that the US defines itself through its pop culture. From the fast buck, instant-wedding world of Las Vegas through to that greatest of icons, the cowboy, she documents how the American Dream is played out in day-to-day reality. The dream of the cowboy in Dead Eagle Trail is the product of another era. “They feel like they’re rooted in the past. That’s why I dated every photograph in the book, because you wouldn’t believe some of them were shot in 2009. They’re frozen in time.”
The project began when Hilton went to the city of Cortez in Colorado to photograph an Alaskan cowboy named Jeremiah Karsten, who had crossed the US mainland on horseback. “He was 17 when he left home in Alaska, and it had taken him just over two years. When he rode through Cortez he met a girl, and so he went back there when he had finished. All the cowboys in Cortez absolutely loved him because they found him an inspiration. They wanted to be guaranteed that the American Dream was still a possibility. In a young cowboy like Jeremiah they definitely saw it continuing on.”
What Hilton found in Cortez was not what she expected. “While I was there the old cowboys invited me to dinner. When I walked through the door my jaw dropped. I went to see Johnny Green, whose picture is in the book, and he was surrounded by all this clutter which was Western oriented. He had Western books, a collection of spurs, belt buckles. I asked if this was how cowboys lived, if there was another side I didn’t know about. He said ‘yeah, we love our culture’. It started there.”
What Hilton found inside the cowboy’s house was how, as she put it, “they’re clutching hold of their heritage; they didn’t want to let it go.” This is the story Dead Eagle Trail tells. There was initially more Americana, Hilton said, but “it had been seen before. And in the end it became heavily weighted by the portraits with only a few landscapes to place you.” What is so intriguing about the pictures is that the Americana is the background; it informs the portraits, and grounds them in a world recognisable from the television of the ‘50s and ‘60s and the Golden Age of Hollywood.
In the introduction to Dead Eagle Trail, Hilton writes that “Hollywood has immortalized the Wild West. American culture has been defined by it, and the American Dream has been created out of it.” That Hollywood, and its frontier myths, is one from an era long past. It is there in the Americana, which is often in the form of John Wayne memorabilia. Johnny Green, in fact, sold a horse to Wayne. I asked Hilton if she talked to the cowboys about how that image had changed, and how contemporary pop culture portrays them. “I mistakenly mentioned Brokeback Mountain once. That had a very interesting reaction,” she said with an almost mischievous laugh. “At first they denied knowledge of it, then one of them said, ‘I think I know what you mean. No, we won’t be seeing that.’ After that I never asked again.”
The world of the twenty-first century cowboy in Hilton’s pictures is like a remembrance of things past and this is one of the reasons it strikes a chord for an urban audience. “It’s like they’re in cotton wool,” Hilton said as we were looking through the book and talking freely about whatever came to mind. “I loved it for that. Technology is so fast and furious and we’re all struggling to keep up. This book is the total opposite. Although I do shoot digitally this was all shot on a plate camera. That process matched the subject matter. You can’t help thinking, ‘are they really here in 2010?’ But it wasn’t meant to be nostalgic. That’s something to do with us, not them. Its our interpretation looking at it, our hankering for the past because it’s comfortable, it’s familiar.”
The large-format 5×4 camera, and the quality of the detail it captures, adds extraordinary depth to the portraits. I had looked at a high-resolution digital reproduction of Dead Eagle Trail previously, but the difference in looking at the book was far more startling than expected. The level of detail, the richness of the colour, the tangibility of the pictures even, is far more spellbinding on paper. Like the cowboy, it does not belong to the virtual world, which is invariably more immediate, and more superficial.
This is evident in the portrait of Johnny Green, with all his clutter, and also that of seventy-five year old ‘Cotton Logan, Cowpuncher’, which was exhibited in the National Portrait Gallery as part of the 2009 Taylor Wessing Prize. The light source is natural and, as is the case for many of the portraits, comes through the window. “He and his wife were so modest and so humble,” Hilton said. “Since taking that picture he’s back on his horse. He couldn’t ride; he’d had an accident with a cow that had kicked him. He’s since had a hip replacement and now he’s back on the horse. If the cowboys can’t get on their horses they’re quite depressed. So long as they can ride they’re fit and healthy and can carry on.”
One of the portraits that stands out is ‘Kenny and Joanne Goode, Powdermonkey’. Kenny is watching television, a beer in hand, and Joanne is reading a book. Next to the sofa is what looks to be the door to a vault. I had to ask what it was. “It’s his gun safe. He is so into guns it’s beyond. He collects guns. Pride of place in his lounge is the gun safe. It’s never going to leave his sight.” I wanted to know if Joanne was reading the Bible. “Yes. She said, ‘what am I going to do when I’m sat on the sofa?’ and I suggested she read a book, and asked what she would like to read. She said, ‘the Bible’.”
Another couple whose portrait is striking is that of ‘Kim McElroy, Horse Whisperer & Dave Powell, Rancher’. I asked Hilton about the composition, and why McElroy is standing. She paused, almost as if she was unsure if she should answer, then said, “Because she kind of wore the trousers. She’s a horse whisperer, and from what I could gather very successful. People brought their horses from state to state for her to break them in. He was a rancher and they had this dream to own a ranch together. But she was moneyed from her own career. To me it felt …” Hilton trailed off. It was almost as if she was protective of Powell’s position as the cowboy, of how he fit into the project as a whole and not just the picture. The gun across his lap certainly reinforces his masculinity. Then she finished, “And she was older than him. That’s probably why I asked her to stand.”
We had throughout been talking about belt buckles, and Hilton had shown me her impressive collection, which is also on display as part of the exhibition. I pointed out McElroy’s imposing belt buckle and the fact that Powell does not have one. “It spoke volumes, I thought,” she responded, nodding her head.
There is not much in the way of technology in the pictures aside from the odd television set, which is always an old CRT that is more often than not in a wood encasing. I asked Hilton if she saw much in the way of modern gadgetry. “They do have mobiles,” she answered then added, laughing, “but they’re always out of service. And it’s rare if there’s a computer. If they’ve got kids there’s a computer but if not there’s no computer. And if there is a) they don’t have time for it, and b) the wife does it.”
What matters to the cowboy is his cattle. In the picture ‘Jason Pelham, Cowboy and Surfer’, Pelham is in his house with a calf and a feeding bottle. “Those calves live with him,” Hilton said. “He keeps all the calves in the house to make sure they survive the winter, and he bottle-feeds them. I didn’t realise how important their cattle was. They’re passionate about their cows. Even though they’re going to end up eating them.”
The cowboys were also very Republican, and very religious. “They spend days alone,” Hilton said, starting to explain the character of their religiosity. She described her experience out at Four Corners, in which Jeremiah Karsten was tagging cattle and bottle-feeding calves who had lost their mothers, as “very spiritual. You were completely grounded. If you were religious, and you wandered off in that way on a daily basis, and you had peace and quiet, like going into a convent or a silent order, then you wouldn’t need to go to Church.” The cowboy that Hilton observes is almost out of time, and in an expanse where myth and reality intersect. Dead Eagle Trail is a fascinating insight into this world as well as a calm respite from the fast-paced lifestyle of the urban twenty-first century.
Exhibition • Host Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, London, EC1Y 0TH
21 April – 15 May 2010