Out West presents images from Carleton’s Art Collection, portraying both romanticized scenes of the American cowboy, and ethnographic portraits of vanishing Native Americans.

Carleton’s photography holdings reveal the persistence of the romantic myth of the cowboy in contemporary American culture. Jill Mathis, with Bronco Rider (1993) and other works, hides the faces of rodeo contestants with hats or shadows, drawing the viewer’s eye away from individuals’ features to the cowboy clothing. By highlighting ten-gallon hats, plaid shirts, and intricately worked leather chaps, Mathis sees these details as essential to the construction of the cowboy image. Barrel Racer (1994) captures the aura of a young barrel racer in action; a cloud of dust forms a shimmering halo around the horse and rider.

In contrast to Jill Mathis’s anonymous scenes, Kristen Capp’s photographs explore how this great American myth translates into the lives of small town cowboys. Capp documents rodeos and Indian reservations without irony. In Cowboy, Moses Lake, WA (1995), the rugged features and shadowed gaze of the aging cowboy could grace the cover of a Western novel. Capp’s images pay close attention to the individual characteristics of her subjects, such as in Gabe (1995), and the ways these specific people adapt cowboy conventions to everyday life. Capp suggests that the boundary between myth and reality is indistinct.

Elliot Erwitt’s Las Vegas (1957) shows how deeply ingrained the image of the fierce Western gunslinger has become in popular culture. In this photograph of a Las Vegas casino, a slot machine takes the form of a cowboy. Erwitt’s Las Vegas is a study in opposites: the grimace of the slot machine mannequin contrasts with the impassive face of the gambler.

Eanger Irving Couse’s The Call (c. 1935), and Gene Kloss’s Taos Devil Dance (1935) present romanticized views of the American Indian. Like Mathis’s cowboys, these representations are anonymous, emphasizing generic types and costume rather than individual features. Unlike the photographs of Mathis or Capp, these images do not engage with contemporary culture; instead, their subjects are isolated within ritual and type, separated from the viewer. In Taos Devil Dance, the viewer feels like an intruder on the tight circle of dancers who crouch inward toward one another. These works demonstrate the persistence of a mythic tradition: the American Indian as a romantic emblem of otherness.

Description and image selection by Spencer Wigmore ’11