Feature

Sam Contis Interview: Deep Springs

By Brad Feuerhelm on July 12, 2017

“I think the darkness at the periphery of the work also comes from a desire to acknowledge a certain brutality inherent to the history of the western landscape, and to the struggle for survival within it.”

Sam Contis’ “Deep Springs” published by MACK is what I refer to as a drama or a play in the interview that she was kind enough to grant me. There are characters and the stage is a very particular piece of the great wide open American West-the eponymous all-male college set on the frontier of Nevada and California where the actors govern themselves along with the land and the college itself stands in glorious isolation.

One of the most striking features of this play is the fraternity of the men involved. There is an anonymity of character in a way-fragments of bodies gorgeously lit as if they were statues stood amongst the drift of longer stretches of stage time. They are sensuous and without hostility towards one another, though blood and unspoken violence do make appearances. There is something very caring at the base of Sam’s work. She has clearly gained trust and access to the drama that has unfolded during the production of her work. Her use of archival imagery of the college itself also lends credence to what could only be considered a “concerned eye” for details and historical interest. The work breathes. It does not “document” or force meaning or stereotype, but rather settles as but one of many possibilities in the greater challenge of visualizing the American West. It also evades the nostalgic, but flirts with a collective memory that is enforced through an imagined cinematic detail, but erodes the methodology of many of that particular medium’s talent for obvious and patterned sterotypes. The work is highly sensitive and pleasurable for all that is not implied as well as what is.

BF: Lord of the Flies- Soft Men covered in flies and small blades of grass wielding larger blades that separate tissue from bone. There is almost a tragedy hinted at in “Deep Springs”. I can’t place it, I can’t reverberate its meaning from my own experience as a once young man and I can tell you that I feel that loss within is palpable. Perhaps it is the use of sinew and sweat and boys teetering on the edge of manhood, cocoons so tightly wrapped that they burst forth from their denim jeans…was there any intention to look into this erosion of male stoicism from your side when making the work?

SC: The feeling is hard to put into words. There is a kind of foreboding in many of the images: the strange horses on the ground, the pig’s head, the blood-spattered sheet. And there are elegiac moments—like the man caught mid-somersault off the jetty. In some ways, the place created in the work feels to me almost utopian. There is something of the visual feel of memory, suggesting a time and place now lost. I think the darkness at the periphery of the work also comes from a desire to acknowledge a certain brutality inherent to the history of the western landscape, and to the struggle for survival within it. So even though there is a gentleness and softness in many of the pictures, at the same time I wanted to describe a violence that feels necessary, not only to survival but also to transformation. Skins are torn and shed, bodies are doubled and broken into fragments, landscapes are splintered and scarred. The first image in the book shows an abandoned copper mine; the shape of its darkened entrance feels like a sharpened flint.

BF: Men, Horses, Terrain. Terra Incognito, Terra Firma, Terra unfamiliar. Everything about Deep Springs feels also like a play, perhaps alluding to my first question of the rites of tragedy. There are Dionysian statuesque male models found in archival footage, there are bodies wrapped in plastic as if to cover them from the dust, which gathers in this little theatre.  The setting of Deep Springs feels like it is so secluded that it becomes a stage for the characters to act out their fantasies. As an observer, editor and artist, I could not help but feel you are also but one of the characters involved in the drama. The camera is accepted, but seems to also become part of the act. Did you feel completely ingrained into the life at Deep Springs or was it awarded to you with some reservation?

SC: The idea of the American west as a stage is, I think, in keeping with traditional ways of thinking about this landscape—it’s always been thought of as a place where one can try on new identities, reinvent or rediscover oneself. And photography has always been used as a tool to construct new ideas about place and self, especially in the west. In that way, the work is about photography’s own role in coming to understand ourselves and our environment. In addition, the sense of the stage may be reinforced by the dreamlike, half-familiarity we have with this place. For most of us, our knowledge of it doesn’t come through personal experience, but through the image-culture, especially film. If you think about the American west through the lens of cinema, then, of course, the idea of fantasy is inescapable, but I don’t think the young men in my pictures are necessarily acting out fantasies. The students are at an age where most are living away from their families for the first time and are trying to figure out who they are going to be as adults. This period of late adolescence and early adulthood is, for nearly everyone, a time when you’re trying to figure out who you are—the ways in which others see you and the ways in which you see yourself.

In an isolated valley, surrounded by wide open spaces, one has a real sense of freedom. The vastness of the desert and its remoteness create space for introspection and, importantly, imagination. And at the same time that I’m showing my subjects in transitional states, states of becoming or transformation, where identity is in flux, I’m also talking about the act of image-making itself. So in a way I couldn’t help but become a character in the drama. The camera is sometimes acknowledged by my subjects or alluded to in other ways: I wasn’t looking to be some kind of ghost who leaves no trace and whose presence doesn’t register in the photographs. With regard to the last part of your question, I felt throughout the making of the work that there was a real collaboration. All of us, the subjects and myself together, were actively exploring what it meant to inhabit this landscape. For me, the photographs are the result of that inquiry and speak more to my own personal understanding of place than anyone else’s. I didn’t know exactly what I was making when I started out and in some ways the whole thing still feels really open.

“The camera is sometimes acknowledged by my subjects or alluded to in other ways: I wasn’t looking to be some kind of ghost who leaves no trace and whose presence doesn’t register in the photographs.”

Contis_Torso

BF: Back to the question of terrain and alien landscapes. The desolation that I imagine regarding the Deep Springs setting, must carry with it a sense of duty to the inhabitants. I would think it pushes the men into a very intimate trust environment, not unlike gold rushing the west 170 years before. Is there a palpable sense of camaraderie at the college? Would your estimation be that as an educational model, having a university in this kind of environment results in a stronger fraternity, but also an a-symmetrical and progressive educational program?

SC: There is a historical link to the gold rush. The founder of the college originally went west looking for gold, and he started an electricity company to power the mines. He also wanted to educate the young men he hired, and the educational program he created for his workers became the model for Deep Springs College. The college takes its name from the valley where it’s situated, in the high desert east of the Sierras, on the California–Nevada border. The college is a small, isolated place—the nearest gas station is an hour’s drive away through the mountains. There are only 26 students and they’re a part of a group of people who work a 155-acre alfalfa farm and manage a ranch of 200 cattle. The students effectively govern themselves and play a large role in the day-to-day operation of the college. The fact that they’re pursuing this common project together, and doing so in such isolation, means that it’s a very close community. This has a real impact on the academic environment too: the close proximity in which the students live and work together forces them think through ideas together and confront the limitations of their own perspectives.

BF: The book overall presents a sensual and caring view of young men in an environment previously associated with cowboy culture-the rugged and stoic manipulation of the uncaring hardened fraternity of males in an isolated community. This is not a view that is culturally embraced in the current climate. There is a formidable shouting about masculine toxicity, the patriarchy etc. This seems to overshadow and continually permeate the male experience as one of dissociation from the larger context of the discussion in many cases. Your book is a refreshing anti-thesis of these patterned stereotypes that we have come to associate with men. It feels that instead of seeking a villain or associating men as being complacent, uncaring, or the rulers of society’s misfortune. As a matter of fact, we can draw opposing parallels within your work. The experience you have endeavored seems to suggest something else. Would you care to talk about the pre-conceived notions of masculinity and how your experience of an all-male community gestated to become this body of work?

SC: I was particularly interested in exploring the ways we choose to represent ourselves: the poses we adopt and clothes we wear. I also wanted depict the male body in a way that is somehow ambiguous. For example, in the photograph “Embrace”, it’s not immediately clear how many bodies are in the picture, and the title makes the nature of the gesture even less clear. I wanted to make a picture that could be described in multiple ways, even as both aggressive and affectionate at the same time. I think a lot of the pictures contain a great degree of openness and a certain amount of confusion that allows us to question what we’re looking at and reconsider what we think we know.

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I was talking to a former student of the college recently—someone who appears in the book. He was looking through it and could immediately recognize all the hands, necks, backs, and shoulders that appear—he could immediately say who they belonged to. He said he had never been so intimate with other people’s bodies before his time in the valley. I saw that, for the young men, living and working within an isolated community allowed for greater awareness of themselves and each other. It’s something that I felt that in my relationship with them too. In making pictures, I was trying to depict the subtleties of physical bodies—their textures and forms—and at the same time to show an evolving image of maleness and masculinity.

BF: Again, associating the male stereotype with undue aggressions and cultural decline, it seems that the response mechanism for a body of work like Deep Springs suggests that men can be viewed, within communities like this as either overly and terribly masculine or a bit ….“brokeback”. Why do you surmise society has limited the role of the masculine to the evaporation of the in-between? Would you care to comment on the sensual or sexual environment of Deep Springs?

SC: I suppose it’s human nature to want to place things into simple categories. It makes the world easier to navigate. But it distorts reality. I want the work to push back against that simplifying tendency, and I don’t want it to be easily readable as one thing or another. The work is many things, in the same way that identity is multi-layered and more complex than these labels allow.

BF: Perhaps due to the use of archival imagery, perhaps due to the use of monochromatic imagery, the work seems of a different era. That is not to suggest that it is anachronistic or nostalgic in any way. I do not see it as such. That being said, there seems to have been a deliberate “pulling from time” intension on your part-a condition to refract overly contemporary aesthetics, whether color or monochrome. There are portraits within the book that remind me of George Hoyningen-Huene, various images of James Dean or Paul Newman, perhaps some portraits by Manuel Alvarez-Bravo (the soft torso), but also I find myself thinking of Arnold Genthe, Max Dupain, Edward Weston (the soft torso again and his portrait of Neil pissing into a porcelain basin) and Tina Modotti. Were there artistic antecedents for you personally or do you find that the environment completely shaped the aesthetic?

SC: There are definitely artistic antecedents, not only photographic antecedents but also film, poetry, sculpture and painting. More generally I was looking to reference the multiple ways in which our collective visual database informs the way in which we imagine ourselves in relation to our environment. There are bodies in the work that that evoke classical sculpture—Venus or the sleeping Hermaphroditus, for example. And then I was thinking about the history of photography too. During the editing process, I realized that the close-up picture of a neck recalled Man Ray’s image of Lee Miller. I wasn’t consciously thinking of that image when I made it, but I know that it must’ve been somewhere in the back of my mind. I was interested in referencing the artists you mention from the late 20s and 30s, as well as others like Helmar Lerski and Germaine Krull. Those connections are important and they contribute to the way in which the work subverts one’s sense of time. But as you noticed, I also wanted to use these resonances to create something new, something that isn’t nostalgic and which feels contemporary.

“In an isolated valley, surrounded by wide open spaces, one has a real sense of freedom. The vastness of the desert and its remoteness create space for introspection and, importantly, imagination.”

Contis_Untitled (Drinking at the top)

BF: There is a pretty amazing set of pictures that I want to ask you about from a place of pure curiosity. There is an image of three boys that looks so staged that I want to think it’s a contemporary image made to look like a 1960s image of the trio licking rocks on the ground. This is followed by a similar image of horses on the ground on the following page. The image of the boys is such a curious image. I don’t know what to draw from it. The horses follow the boys as a clever design employ, but is there any correlation to the boys and the horses in metaphor? Masculinity is oft aligned to bulls and horses. Also, are they licking salt crystals to your knowledge?

SC: The image of the young men “licking rocks” is a found image. It immediately struck me, because, as you say, it looks as though it could have been made today. I think part of what makes the image so contemporary is that it doesn’t have a clear intention behind it. There’s a strong element of performance, too, and I’ve wondered myself whether it was staged. I’ve looked at it many times and I still don’t have a clear sense of what’s really happening. The white material on the ground is snow, or perhaps salt. The photographer was most likely lying down alongside the others: the angle is unusual—the top of one man’s head is out of focus and juts into the foreground. I love how the uneven edges of the photographic object mimic the shape of mountain range in the background. It’s a playful image but at the same time full of strangeness. We don’t see any of the young men’s faces. There’s a kind of desperation in the clenched fist of the figure on the left.

On the previous page of the book, a metal milk pail lies in a sink of murky, milky water. On the following page, three horses, without riders, thrash about on the ground. In creating this sequence of images, I was definitely thinking about notions of virility—but, even more, the pictures together seemed to speak to the idea of thirst or an essential yearning. The image of the horses then leads to a group of young men in a body of water, and the flexing back of one figure who is about to throw a stone into the water. The gesture is simultaneously teasing and menacing. In the same way, when you look at picture of the horses it’s not entirely clear if they are experiencing pleasure or pain. Just like the figure at the water’s edge, and the horses writhing on the ground, the young men in the archival picture exist, for me, in a state of in-between.

BF: “Greenest grass is in the deepest mud”-I am positive this was written on the back of a snapshot recently. The handwriting and the methodology of metaphor are of now…can you tell me about this piece?

SC: Are you saying you think that you’ve seen a similar image? I really hope so. This is also a found photograph. It’s the way the image was captioned, just as you might write the location or date on the back of a photograph. I don’t show the “front” of the image anywhere in the book. As soon as I saw it, I knew that the phrase itself was the picture. It speaks to the actual physical location—the aquifer on which the college is situated—and to the manual labor involved in turning a desert valley green. But it’s also about what lies beneath the surface in a more abstract sense: about our relationships to ourselves and to our environment, the struggle for self-discovery. It’s one of the only examples of text in the book. Another archival image, the third image in the book, has a short description on the back that reads, “Part of Deep Springs Valley from Wyman Canyon”. Here the original image had been partially torn away from the black paper album pages, and had become folded in half. What was at first an image of a canyon has now, through a kind of erosion, been transformed into a shape that evokes a mountain.

BF: Archival imagery for me is usually a limp crutch that is employed by a poor photographer excising the virtues of the document to do much of the work that the author cannot do him or herself. I categorically do NOT feel this way with your work or edit. I find myself in the rare position of breathing a sigh of relief for your exceptional use of the archival. Did you start with the idea of using archival material or did you encounter an album, groups of snaps etc.? Perhaps you purchased them, bought images from eBay etc.?

SC: I didn’t begin with the plan to incorporate archival material, but I became interested in using it to reference the role that photography has played in our conception of the west. The images I found come from the college’s own archive. They date back to the founding of the college in 1917. Many of the archival pictures are about the act of looking. In one picture, a pair of binoculars has been attached to the body of an old view camera: the students had invented an early zoom lens. In the archival pictures of figures, the perspective constantly shifts and the camera is often used so as to call attention to itself. For instance, one image shows a young man standing nude, holding up a short towel or sheet, adopting a flirtatious pose. He’s keenly aware of the photographer’s presence, and so are we. In another image, a student looks intently into his hand-held camera, captured in the act of representing what we—the viewer—don’t see. I was struck by how the young men making these images were themselves using photography as a tool to explore notions of representation and identity. It seemed to me that we were exploring very similar ideas, a century apart.

Sam Contis

Deep Springs

MACK

(All Rights Reserved. Text @ Brad Feuerhelm. Images @ Sam Contis.)

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