Last Best Hiding Place by Tim Richmond is a photographic homage to the American West. Produced over a seven-year period, from 2007 to 2014, the series focuses on the banality of everyday life in places such as South Dakota, Wyoming or Montana. The barren landscape of the American West is periodically punctuated by structures such as churches, oil pumps or shopping malls. These contextualising scenes provide the backdrop to a number of portraits in the book: an elderly rancher looking into the distance at a gas station, a Vietnam War Veteran drinking a coffee in the shade, or a Native American man – literally and figuratively – standing at a cross road.
Inasmuch Richmond provides a diverse portrait of the people of the American West, it is noticeable that most portraits are of cowboys. The striking shape of their hats immediately evokes the visual stereotype countlessly reproduced in American cinema, popular culture and advertising. Unlike Richard Prince whose appropriation of the ‘Marlboro Man’ focused on the lone male figure as a quasi-hero of the American Dream, in Richmond’s work the cowboys are aimless wanderers. They are not depicted on the back of a horse or herding cattle, but rather, they can be seen washing shirts in a Laundromat or waiting to be checked in at a motel. By depicting the modern cowboy in this way, Richmond subtly deconstructs one of the stereotypes of the American West. His cowboys are no heroes. They are vulnerable souls drifting from one place to another.
Richmond accentuates the itinerant lifestyle of his subjects through a number of techniques. Firstly, most of the people photographed for the book are depicted by themselves thus lacking any signifiers that they belong to a community, a family or any other type of social bond. A picture of five cowboys in prayer – their hats in hand and head bowed down – would be the only exception. The other technique applied by Richmond is that none of his subjects look into the camera. Their eyes are usually averted or they are seemingly not aware of the presence of the photographer. In some cases Richmond photographs people through reflections in shop windows further feeding into the impression that the people he photographs appear somewhat disorientated and vulnerable. Murals that warn against substance abuse, a leaflet that looks for witnesses to a brutal stabbing and signs of social deprivation make this is a rather pessimistic representation of the American West.
In many of the photographs Richmond appears to engage in a type of visual game: not just by deconstructing visual stereotypes such as the cowboy, but also by referencing iconic photographs taken in this photogenic part of America. This visual referencing is most apparent in the final image of the book which bears a striking similarity to Garry Winogrand’s infamous 1957 black and white photograph of a toddler standing in the driveway of a suburban house in New Mexico. In Richmond’s version of this dystopian scene taken in Utah, the toddler is replaced by builders’ tools and a bush in the foreground of Winogrand’s famous image is now a stack of pre-grown lawn yet to be planted on the front yard of the house. To the back of the house there is the desert. The symbolism of this image is clear: the post-war dream of suburban living, perhaps still alive when Winogrand took his photograph, can now be revealed as an artificial construct that has more in common with a show home. Since it is the final image of the book, the symbolism it conveys is all the more powerful.
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