Aperture Foundation, in collaboration with the Photography Program at Parsons School of Design of The New School, is pleased to present an artist talk with Sam Contis. Contis is a California-based artist whose first book, Deep Springs, was published in May 2017. In Deep Springs, Contis uses photography as a tool to understand the landscape of the American West in both its physical manifestation and in its mythic connotations. Responding to canonical classic photographs of the American West, such as those of Carleton Watkins and Timothy H. O’Sullivan, Contis began photographing her own version of the West through the lens of Deep Springs College, a tiny all-male school in Deep Springs Valley, near the California-Nevada border. Founded in 1917, Deep Springs is an unusual school in that it encourages physical labor as well as intellectual curiosity—students study philosophy and literature, but are also instrumental in the running of the school’s cattle ranch and alfalfa farm. Contis became closely connected to the community of young men at Deep Springs, making intimate photographs that test our expectations about the way the American West is often represented and gendered. Contis’s young cowboys are gentler and more affectionate than the Marlboro Man or John Wayne; they seem to become part of the very soil of Deep Springs, forging a oneness with the historically feminized earth. Ultimately, Contis’s project focuses on age-old photographic questions about representation, identity, and performance. The images expand our visual vocabulary about masculinity and the way we relate both to one another and to our landscapes. Contis states of the American West: “It’s always been thought of as a place where one can try on new identities, reinvent or rediscover oneself. And photography has always been used as a tool to construct new ideas about place and self, especially in the west. In that way, the work is about photography’s own role in the process of coming to understand ourselves and our environment.”
Sam Contis lives and works in California. Her work has been shown internationally with recent exhibitions in Los Angeles, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and London, and solo shows at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive, California, and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, New York. She is a recipient of the 2017 Nancy Graves Foundation Artist Grant, 2016 Aaron Siskind Foundation fellowship, and the Tierney Fellowship. Contis’s work is represented in the collections of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Yale University Art Gallery. Deep Springs, her first book, was published by MACK earlier this year, and has been shortlisted for the 2017 Paris Photo–Aperture Foundation First PhotoBook award. In 2018, her work will be on view in Being: New Photography at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Image: Sam Contis, Deep Springs (2017). Courtesy of the artist and MACK.
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