How mining transforms the West’s ranching communities

by Lucas Foglia and Sarah Gilman

We recommend you enjoy these photos in our gallery view.

When photographer Lucas Foglia, now 31 years old, first visited the rural West, he expected  “cowboys, ghost towns and wilderness.” But he found a wide variety of people making ends meet in the midst of a jarring economic transition, as booming strip mines and oil and gas fields transform communities that have historically relied on ranching.

This transformation is the subject of Foglia’s new book Frontcountry, out this spring from Nazraeli Press. But the collection is just as much about everyday life amid the region’s vast landscapes, and is more portrait than indictment of heavy industry – one that resists romance or nostalgia.

Taken over a series of long trips between 2006 and 2013, the images are intimate and occasionally challenging. Foglia’s subjects often confront the viewer with piercing eyes and tough-to-read faces, or appear in odd, even contorted postures. Both interiors and exteriors are harsh and spare, with lights and lines that give them a hard emotional edge.

High Country News associate editor Sarah Gilman caught Foglia at his Berkeley studio by phone in May to chat about his aesthetic, his artistic methods and his minivan escapades.

High Country News: Tell me about the project’s origins.

Lucas Foglia: (In 2006, I took a picture in Texas) of an abandoned farmhouse and in the background is a wind farm. The idea of new technology interfacing with a landscape that was historically farmed, and of industry transforming the economy of that landscape, was fascinating to me. Then in 2009 I went to Wyoming to visit my good friend Addie Goss, of Wyoming Public Radio. We started traveling, and the areas we visited – Marbleton, Star Valley, Pinedale, the Pinedale Anticline, the Jonah Field –were undergoing a natural gas boom. Seeing that made me feel like this was a project I needed to work on: I’m from a small farm 30 miles from New York City, and as I was growing up, the land around us was sold and developed. There are now fairly large houses where our neighbors’ farms used to be. So the dynamics of maintaining a rural lifestyle when there are economic incentives to change, to leave or to develop feel personal and relevant to me.

HCN: How did you choose where to spread out from Wyoming – to Nevada, Montana, Idaho, New Mexico and Texas – and what was your process?

Foglia: Almost everyone I photographed was a friend of a friend. So I met a few folks through Addie, and through them, I met other people who introduced me to other people. And I’d go and visit the same people and communities again and again. I really like sleeping on couches. I also have a van with a bed in the back that lets me camp.

The strange thing about that landscape is that it’s so big: Driving down a road, you can look to the left and see a stormcloud, and look to the right and it’s a blue sky. The first time I was there, I realized that if my van broke down, I could walk off and no one would find me. (Then) I ran out of gas, because I had expected there to be a gas station. And so I was sitting on the side of the road, looking out at endless sagebrush. In about 20 minutes, someone else drove by, and they immediately stopped, and they had gas in the back of their pickup truck. The experience for me was one of realizing how close-knit those communities are.

One of the ranches I stayed at had a policy. The first day I was a guest, and then every day after, I was free labor. And that’s something I believe in pretty strongly: If I stay around long enough to really participate, then out of those friendships come situations I can photograph, and the pictures feel like they come out of everyday life.

What I’m looking for is postures, gestures or expressions that feel distinct and dramatic, which sometimes can be subtle. Like with Tommy, about to fall off a pole while holding a loaded gun. Or with Roger, bending back, stretching after lifting weights. And in Jeffrey City, Wyoming, I met Thomas and Kimberly, who (in their photo) are swimming in a pond surrounded by uranium mines.

George, who’s on the cover of the book (in front of a plume of smoke), is a retired rancher who enjoys chasing wildfires. He told me very confidently that he had safety provisions. And I asked, “What safety provisions?” And he said: “I have two bottles of water, a Coke, a candy bar, a shovel, and a handgun.”

HCN: A lot of photographers from outside the West take images of ranching culture that are highly idealized. Yours mostly aren’t: The people seem real; they’re contemporary.

Foglia: What’s happening now is more complicated and more interesting than the image of cowboys I see in Western movies. There’s tension in it. I wanted to be careful 1. Not to idealize, and 2. Not to simplify the photographs with criticism.

Someone told me that mining and ranching are the same idea, just at different rates. Both rely on the land, and people in both have to work really hard. Ranching is very vulnerable to weather. A frost could come in and skyrocket the price of hay. Or the government could change grazing regulations in response to drought. And mining is vulnerable to fluctuations in the prices of resources globally: In Nevada, whole towns are built or abandoned based on the price of gold.

The core question that I encountered was, how should the open land we have left be used? Mining helps with roads. It helps with courts. Teachers in the schools. Libraries. The counter-argument is that it changes the (small-town ranching) culture that the landscape is famous for: The Wild West is part of our American story. To me, Randy Stowell speaks to this tension. I photographed Randy in his last season on the Big Springs ranch (near Wells,) Nevada, which has since been transformed into a new gold mine. He told me, “This little town has nothing. It’s dying on the vine. But with the mine here, it’ll bring in jobs and make everything bigger and better. There are people who want that boost to the community. I’m not one of them. The mine will ruin this mountain, and you’ll never find land this beautiful anywhere else.”

HCN: You open Frontcountry, not with an artist’s statement, but with an essay from another rancher, Olan Clifford Teel. Why let him provide the frame for the images?

Foglia: My mother who told me that the circus is magic if you don’t see the strings. I was writing the opening essay, and I kept thinking about the hours of casually recorded conversations with Cliff I had from visits over a couple of years. In most of them, the wind was blasting into the microphone, and we were walking around land or just talking over dinner. He’s someone who cares about ranching, and has spent decades raising cattle. But he has friends who work for the mines. And friends who ranch whose kids work for the mines. He touches on all of the important questions in the book, without at any point saying that you need to think something’s right or something’s wrong. It’s up to whoever sees the photographs to figure out what they believe and how they feel.

Foglia’s images will be on display at Robischon Gallery in Denver, Colorado, from Sept. 18 to Nov. 1. Frontcountry is available here.

© High Country News