GO WEST: A PHOTOGRAPHIC JOURNEY BY JEAN LAUGHTON
It has been said that art of the American West is about documentation and romance. These two principles form the core of my GO WEST series. My fascination with the documentation of the American West stems in part from my love of silent cinema - the backdrops & sets - the posturing of reality - and in part from my desire to photograph the people of the region - in accordance with my romantic vision of the West. I am intrigued with the way ordinary people inhabit characters of their own fascination, imagination or creation and instill the clichéd mythology with a look and feel of their own and I wanted to give them each a starring role.
I grew up in rural Iowa near the South Dakota border, on the edge of the West. When I began this series I was living in New York City. I was longing to GO WEST, back home and beyond, to photograph the people of a region that so captivated me - to escape back to reality and wide-open spaces - and travel across the vastness of the West on a journey that became not only a photographic one but also one of personal discovery - finding links between photo subjects and past family members, making friends with old bronc riders from my great grandmother's days - mingling with the past while documenting the present as I looked to the future and the reinvention of my life.
My journeys West took me through Iowa, S. Dakota, Nebraska, Wyoming and Montana over several summers. I traveled with my painted backdrops and set up a makeshift outdoor studio at small town rodeos, doing portraiture of rodeo participants and spectators. Behind the scenes, I found my "cast of characters" to photograph - a cast as rich and diverse as the western landscape itself. It felt as though they had just stepped out of wardrobe and were ready to walk onto my "set". The set consisting of my painted backdrop and 4x5 view camera. When my subjects stepped in front of the backdrop, the drama unfolded. The backdrops allowed for a separation between the subjects and the reality of their environment - the subjects stay real but the reality is objectified and romanticized - creating a mixture of my fantasy and my subject's reality - transforming them into Icons of the American West. In doing so, this is not only a documentation of the people of the region but a documentation of what they represent - the myth of the West, the adventure, romance, exploitation, heroism ...
For me they represented my dreams & desire to inhabit the myth and to recreate my life out West... - and in looking at them I found something in me and I have since stepped inside the photograph to live my life ranching and photographing in the Badlands of South Dakota.