My favorite thing about the Cowboy is its porosity, the vents between a lifestyle of maintenance and the same word’s constructed iconography, romance, and cinema.
This collision creates what I imagine to be a sort of spin-cycle, life imitating art and art imitating life and all remaining American Cowboys tasked with filling the shoes of their own mythology.
Opening Karoliina Paatos’ American Cowboy, we are presented immediately with a close up portrait of a split-lipped young wrangler, a fly perched out of focus on his cheek, a reliably plaid shirt and weary hazel eyes. He fits our image. It is difficult not to impose him into a cliché narrative—I can almost see him stoop out of the picture-frame to lift a bale of hay. The book begins this way: a man, a truck, a snow-filled pasture, a brown mug of coffee. It shifts dramatically when a new character arrives, someone so foreign to the Marlboro Ad it requires re-calibration. Enter the young girl, the cowboy-girl, pant buttons etched with tiny hearts. She has always been part of the family ranching reality, yet never part of the Cowboy’s formula, and Paatos’ insertion of her immediately makes American Cowboy more intriguing than any famous western.
The masterful book brings us documentation of a lifestyle steeped in its own mythology, yet unrecognizably human. The book collides weary portraits of working men with austere cinematic landscapes and strange, intimate interiors: a figurine on horseback, a cactus textile, a porcelain boot, and a row of dairy cow miniatures… the kitsch created as imitations of the cowboy narrative finally absorbed by it.
The Finnish photographer is adept at distilling an American reality often complicated to pick apart from within. She is unconcerned by the conservation of the cowboy image, and thus her photographs provide us with a refreshing reality. There is this, she says, pointing to a snow-swept herd, and right around the corner, there is this (a cowboy lit by his cellphone in the cab of his pickup), and this (a young girl sprawled on horseback as if stretched on a sofa). The images do not attempt to narrate our cliché western, but rather give us every bit of evidence to its current state.
The beautifully bound 120-page volume reads fluidly, gifting its readers with foldout full-bleed vistas and snippets of dialogue. Paatos expertly steers us through the cinematic and the authentic, never allowing us to become too comfortable with either genre. The book reflects both mythology and lifestyle back at us, smiling a bit as it asks, Cowboys? Really, what did you expect?
website: Karoliina Paatos
review by Annika Berry
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