The physical form of the book is inherently conducive to photographic series that have a distinct beginning, middle and end, and as a result, it seems that many photographers yield to the temptation to create narratives that are linear. You open the book and page after page you discover workings of the story, until it’s over and the book is finished. Another trend is to try to piece together a series so elliptical that it can never be understood. The artist’s intention is to confuse the viewer to the extent that they’re tricked into thinking the book presents a set of photographs so intelligent that the reader couldn’t possibly comprehend it.
Sometimes, albeit very rarely, a book comes along that takes multiple viewings to grasp its perplexing and seemingly incongruous qualities. These are the books that stay with you as a reader; they are as generous as they are complex. Such is the case with young American photographer Sam Contis’ debut book Deep Springs (published by MACK).
On the surface, this is a book about a boarding school for boys in the American West. Given this information, our expectations fall on that of the stereotypical ‘Marlboro Man’, a cowboy-hatted, horse-riding figure underwritten by themes of violence, cruelty and whatever else it takes to survive in the desert landscape. Yet what we unearth is a nuanced portrait of masculinity, where there is no ‘right’ way to be a boy or a man. Contis’ pictures don’t reinforce stereotypes; they help to break them down.
In addition to her sensitive and astute picture making, there are several devices at play. First off, the book incorporates three different types of images: landscape photographs, portraits of boys and vernacular images pulled from the Deep Springs school archive, which dates back to its inception in 1917, when it was founded by Lucien Lucius Nunn. The vernacular photographs speak to how we might use photography (or cinema) to build images of ourselves and reinforce stereotypes. The sequencing pivots between all three types of images and the scale jumps around as well, creating a visceral sense of place and atmosphere as we sink into the images. Contis uses both black and white and colour, which we see in a lot of books now (especially from MACK). It can be disorientating, but it seems that’s the point.
The photographs in Deep Springs continuously look inward on themselves. The landscape appears harsh and violent as men struggle to live on and in it. The body is fragile and tender; we see a young boy sleeping, a hand, a throat, a pink torso. Men toil with cattle, collect fresh eggs, lie splayed out on the grass exhausted. A boy wearing a cowboy hat looks at his own shadow on the wall; a young man lies naked on a bed, the photographer’s vantage and framing evoking classical compositional techniques often found in painting.
In a visual sense, these surfaces delight, but gathered collectively at this point in our history – where gender politics have been thrust into the mainstream conversation – this book is a startling revelation. Contis’ images possess a strange, yet subtle power. Perhaps it has to do with overturning the ‘male gaze’ (after all, who in contemporary photography carries the spirit of Susan Lipper, Diane Arbus or Dorothea Lange forward?). Contis’ portrayal of the anonymous boys is, for the most part, sensitive and playful, exposing their vulnerabilities, awkwardness and fragility.
The book points to the sense that there’s no ultimate answer to gender politics and identity, but rather a gradual transference of power and how such a dialogue leaves you feeling exposed. Deep Springs has the effect of divulging a deep and unquenched thirst.