In a new book, the photographer Peter Kayafas captures the contemporary soul of a region long obscured by its own enduring myths
Somewhere between “Go west, young man!”, the well-known dictate attributed to the 19th-century newspaperman Horace Greeley, and the Pet Shop Boys’ irony-soaked, 1993 cover of the campy Village People anthem “Go West” (from 1979) lies an expansive realm of ambition, aspiration, legend, and myth, a vast territory in the American imagination known as “The West.”
There was a time when it was a real place, where hardy pioneers headed to pursue dreams of easy riches and Manifest Destiny — until, of course, they couldn’t; eventually they would find themselves bucking up against monopolistic corporate powers, boom-and-bust economic cycles, and other natural or human-made forces that would suck the air right out of their promised land’s big balloon.
Hollywood’s “dream factory” picked up where history left off, dutifully doing its part to fuel and reinforce a nation’s sense of itself as a unique land of exceptional creativity, vigor, adventurousness, and spunk, never mind whom or what it destroyed on the road it blazed to glory.
The New York-based photographer Peter Kayafas is keenly aware of this history; in conversation, it’s clear that he also understands both the enduring myths that have shaped Americans’ notions of “The West” and the reality of the region as it appears today.
In fact, for just over a decade, in annual, late-summer, month-long road trips through the area’s broad threshold — the Plains States — Kayafas has produced almost 20,000 images of rodeo riders, cheerleaders, crop fields, and farm buildings standing lonely in the landscape or half hidden by floodwater. Now, 74 of these emblematic black-and-white photographs have been judiciously selected and sequenced in his latest book, The Way West (Purple Martin Press, 2020).
A work of artistic reportage from one slice of what used to be called “the American scene,” it showcases a group of images that in some ways feel as timely as they do timeless, easily evoking the enduring spirit of such definitive precursor collections as Walker Evans’s American Photographs (1938) or Robert Frank’s The Americans (first US edition, 1959).
In a recent interview, recalling the first of his yearly photo-making adventures, in 2008, with which he began laying the groundwork for his larger project, also called “The Way West,” Kayafas explained, “I had spent time in the South, and a fair amount of time in the Southwest and on the West Coast; the Plains States just appealed to me in the most basic and urgent way: I needed the big space for my eyes and my soul.”
After all, he added, “Living in New York exaggerates the need for open spaces, and I found the mythology and literature of the place appealing.” With each trip to such states as South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, and Oklahoma, among others, Kayafas deepened his personal connection with the places he routinely visited, and whose sights and atmospheres he recorded with an old Leica rangefinder camera. (He develops his conventional film and prints his photographs himself.) His title, The Way West, comes from a 1949 book by A.B. Guthrie, Jr., who, in a series of related novels, wrote about the Oregon Trail and the settling of white pioneers in Montana.
In examining Kayafas’s photographs, I was especially interested in how he gained access to the various communities and individuals that became his subjects. That’s because many of his photographs, despite their initial documentary air, are vivid portraits, seemingly composed and snapped on the fly.
“I’m a middle-aged, American white guy,” Kayafas observed, adding, “It’s not hard to blend in with the places and people I’ve been photographing in the West.” Still, he noted:
I don’t generally speak to the people I’m photographing. I know it’s hard to believe when looking at the photographs, especially those in which subjects are making eye contact, but more often than not, there really isn’t much or any reaction from a subject. If anything, there is what I would describe as a tacit acknowledgment between myself and the subject that what I’m looking at — that is, at what they are doing — is important and worth paying attention to.
In “Billings, Montana, 2010,” (Kayafas’s titles include the years in which his photographs were shot, although the dates of his prints vary), a skinny, teenage Native American boy with a broad face and long hair looks away from his young female companion to gaze deliberately, if tolerantly, at the camera; similarly, in “Ogallala, Nebraska, 2011,” a white youngster standing with his pals in front of a wire fence stares right into Kayafas’s lens as the adults around them, their hands placed solemnly on their chests, take part in the Pledge of Allegiance as a sporting event begins.
The out-of-frame action is that of a rodeo, that quintessential convocation of Western folk and their animals, which serves as a locus for the social and historical vibes that Kayafas captures in many of his photographs.
Elsewhere, in a departure from his photos of mostly white spectators and rodeo participants, “Okmulgee, Oklahoma, 2015,” one of The Way West’s most striking images, shows a young black woman in a straw cowboy hat, large sunglasses, and a crisp, American-flag-printed shirt, sitting confidently in the saddle, looking off to her right and delivering some unexpected, high-charged fabulousness to a corner of the outback somewhere south of Tulsa.
Over the years, Kayafas has trained his camera on county fairs and their midways, too — in a shot of a young blonde woman looking up at an out-of-frame amusement ride; in images of fresh-faced children in white shirts and stringy bow ties holding their competition-worthy chickens; in a photo like “Grand Island, Nebraska, 2010,” showing African American youths in a marching band; and in many other pictures of such popular gathering places that traditionally have served as magnets for communities whose members may live many miles apart.
White descendants of the old pioneers, African Americans, Mexican immigrants, Native Americans — everyone turns up in Kayafas’s photographs, suggesting that, in recent times, if not for much longer, different kinds of people have co-existed in the West, and maybe even bonded and thrived there in mutually supportive ways.
Kayafas’s pictures never traffic in sentimentality, serving as a reminder of the delicate line between fine art and Americana-flavored hokum. But whether his portfolio aims to celebrate multiethnic unity high in the saddle, out on the plains, or simply aspires to reflect a region’s demographic character today, these themes waft ambiguously through his images of a diverse people and their collective home.
In The Way West’s afterword, the Montana-based environmental activist Rick Bass, waxing poetic, writes, “The West is a place where the myth of innocence can be preserved a bit longer, where time seems to behave a little bit differently.”
Astute viewers of Kayafas’s photos will recall, however, that most of the territory he has examined has been staunchly pro-Republican-conservative for many decades, its voters all too eager to empower the very politicians who are hellbent on the exploitation of their region’s natural resources, no matter what the cost to the landscape and way of life they treasure. So much for the myth of the West’s “innocence” in practical, contemporary terms.
I asked Kayafas if, with each trip back to the Great Plains, he might have found himself targeting certain places, or if he allowed himself to freely roam. He replied:
I didn’t want to be looking preferentially for something I had preconceived. There are two big problems with that: first, it just reinforces what I already know, and, worse, it stereotypes; second, if I’m preoccupied with looking for something specific, I’ll be likely to miss what I should be seeing. I want to celebrate the intuition and instinct of making photographs — and the most vulnerable reaction to what is happening in front of the camera at any given moment.
Having heeded his own artistic injunction to go west, Kayafas has come back with what surely constitutes one of the most exhaustive, vivid photographic studies of a region to be produced anywhere in recent decades. Still, he emphasized, “I don’t consider myself a documentary photographer in the sense that my goal is only to represent the subject I’m photographing. Certainly, I’m working in the ‘documentary tradition’ or ‘documentary style’ but I’m more interested in my relationship to the subject.”
The photographer added, “I always hope that, at the end of a project, I may know a little something more about humanity than I did when I began.”
The Way West (2020) by Peter Kayafas is published by Purple Martin Press.