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For Lucas Foglia, who was born in 1983 and grew up in Huntingdon, Long Island, 30 miles from Manhattan, the American West was a mythological place, largely created by Hollywood, but still a physical territory, out there to be discovered. So in 2006, the year after he graduated from Brown University, he set off on a journey that took him to North Carolina, down to Florida, across to New Mexico and then up through Texas, Wyoming and Nevada. “What I expected when I went there was a frontier,” he says. “I expected wilderness; people living on the edge of it. I imagined cowboys and ghost towns. And what I encountered was a mining boom.”
He found two apparently opposing economies invested in the same landscape, drawing their labour force from the same local communities supplemented by migrant workers from across the US.
Over the next four years, as he settled into a long-term photographic project and got to know some of the local people, he began to understand how their worlds were changing.
“Miners are modern-day nomads,” he says. “They’ll follow jobs around the country. And mining is one of few industries where you can make a good living without having a college degree. So I met people from all over the country who were moving into small towns in Wyoming and Nevada.”
He also met ranchers “who were older and whose kids were growing up and working in mines, because they could have a set wage. That idea of an interface – of very different lifestyles coexisting and sharing and depending on the same fate. That’s what stuck with me.”
This is the subject of his new book, Frontcountry, which moves through a series of photographs from ranching – traditional, seasonal, sustainable, renewable – to mining – opportunistic, short-term, unsustainable, finite. And to the drilling and blasting for oil and gold has now been added fracking for natural gas. His pictures show huge tracts of newly scarred land stripped and discoloured by industrial-scale mining whose assault appears apocalyptic.
“We’re talking about a region where somebody can own 500,000 acres,” Foglia says, “so the scale of land is tremendous; and it can hold very different lifestyles. Some of the ranches I photographed are still owned by families who have farmed them for generations. Other properties have been sold or leased to mining companies. Sometimes cowboys are paid by the mines to be cowboys. For instance, the Newmont Mining Corporation owns gold mines and it owns the TS ranch, which is one of the biggest cattle ranches in Nevada.”
One of the things that surprised him is how connected the two different lifestyles can be. “Before, I thought about them as very separate, in terms of place and in terms of social groups, and what I learnt is that in a small town everybody knows everybody, pretty quickly.”
But he was disillusioned by what he describes as “the power of an economic incentive versus history”; the way a traditional way of life and its landscape is so quickly lost to financial gain.
“I photographed at the Big Springs ranch in Nevada. That ranch is one of the few places in the state that has year-round grazing, and it’s beautiful. I went there to photograph at first because it held the identity that I had been looking for. Big Springs ranch is now owned by the Newmont Mining Corporation and it’s the future site of a gold mine.”
His pictures throw up lots of questions, about the identity of place, about sustainability, about the future of the region we know as the West.
“Will there be wind farms and solar panels over land that is now mines?” Foglia wonders. “I don’t know. On my website the titles of the pictures link to Google searches. So if you click the title it will open a Google search and the stories will update over time.
“I want the pictures to provoke people to think. And hopefully to find their own answers to the questions the pictures ask. That’s a goal.”
‘Lucas Foglia: Frontcountry’ is at the Michael Hoppen Gallery, London SW3, March 28-May 10; michaelhoppengallery.com. ‘Frontcountry’ is published by Nazraeli Press.
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