A Personal Portrait of the American West
When I was talking to photographer Lucas Foglia about his work, I made the mistake of calling his photographs “artsy.” He quickly corrected me and told me that they were not artsy. They were “art.”
Foglia’s book Frontcountry demonstrates his commitment to that art—he spent seven years traveling across the rural American West to create a portrait of traditional ranching lifestyles, as well as the lifestyle created by a mining and energy boom.
I caught up with Foglia recently, and we talked about his project, his background growing up on a farm, and how easy it is to take a sense of community for granted.
COBURN DUKEHART: Tell me about your inspiration for Frontcountry and how you started working on it.
LUCAS FOGLIA: One of my closest friends moved to rural Wyoming to work for the public radio station there, and I went to visit her. I’d never been to Wyoming before and I expected cowboys, ghost towns, and wilderness, but when I arrived, everyone was talking about a mining boom.
COBURN: When you started photographing did you have themes in mind? How did this come together as a cohesive project for you?
LUCAS: Most of the time I go out with an idea. And this idea was simply to meet people who live in the contemporary, rural American West.
The first time I drove across Wyoming I hadn’t met up with my friend yet, and I was alone. I looked out across a rural highway and saw two million acres of sagebrush. Then I drove into a snowstorm and my car skidded off the road. I remember thinking that I could disappear there—if I got out and walked away no one would find me. It was the first time in my life I’d been in a landscape that I could disappear into.
And then within twenty minutes someone came by, and he said hello, and he had a chain in his pickup truck, and we pulled my car out. He gave me his number in case I ever came to his town and I kept on going. So it was also that idea of a huge landscape with small communities in it that drew me out there.
COBURN: It appears you have a personal connection with a lot of the people in these pictures. Can you tell me about your relationship with your subjects?
LUCAS: I tend to go and spend time in a place, and learn stories by being there and meeting people.
This book resulted from years of trips and visits, and I got to know ranchers, and I got to know people who worked in mining and the natural gas fields. I photographed, and hung out, and helped out. One rancher told me that for the first day I was a guest, and after that I was free labor.
COBURN: You grew up on a farm. How do you feel that that influenced your relationship to the people you met and the images you made?
LUCAS: I grew up growing food with my family, and I think if farming is done well then it can be sustainable. Farmers work 24/7—there’s not a lot of money in farming, but it can survive. Mining is boom to bust.
The gold rush brought a lot of people to the West, but the nuggets of gold that made the American West famous are mostly gone. Now, with modern technology, companies are making holes where there were mountains and digging bigger and bigger holes to mine smaller and smaller things. At the same time, with the current economy, there are a lot of incentives for ranchers to add cattle to land, and there’s a risk of overgrazing.
So I’m not going in with rose-colored glasses about any of the industries I photographed. I want the book to be a portrait, not an indictment, because everyone I photographed talked about caring about the landscape.
COBURN: Did working on this project change you at all or change your approach to the land?
LUCAS: It made me realize how important community is in a place that’s that big. Rural Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, and Wyoming are some of the least populated regions in the United States. In rural Nevada, there are almost twice as many cows as there are people. I thought that they would be places for loners—a place that someone would go to escape.
The second time I drove into Nevada, I drove to a ranch that had a driveway that was almost five miles long. And before I got there, they knew me by my car. I asked the rancher, ‘Is that common?’ And he said, ‘Yeah. We know who’s driving by just by seeing the little colors on the road.’
In my experience, people know each other and take care of each other, because you have to there. And that’s a thing that I miss when I go back home to a city.
Lucas Foglia grew up on a small family farm in New York and holds an M.F.A. in photography from Yale University and a B.A. in art semiotics from Brown University. He currently lives in San Francisco. See more of his work on his website, and purchase his book Frontcountry here.