Artist Sam Contis first visited Deep Springs College—a small, historically all-male college in the high desert of California—in 2012; for the next five years, she photographed its students and landscape. Contis weaves together archival images made by Deep Springs’ first students, dating back to the college’s founding in 1917, with her own photographs, layering history and her vision of our contemporary moment.
In her artist book Deep Springs (2017), she explores the relationship between the history of photography and mythologies of the American West. Playing with conventions of portraiture, representations of masculinity, and the archetypal American cowboy, and responding to the long history of photographers of the western landscape like William Henry Jackson, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Carleton Watkins, Contis brings into being a landscape accessible to people regardless of their gender presentation or identification. Contis puts us face to face with detail, texture, and flesh, creating an intensely physical terrain where individuals and the landscape surrounds us. “The earth and body become indistinguishable,” she said. “I wanted to relate the male body to the landscape which is often gendered as female.” In Echo, two students sit intimately tucked into one another, one figure becoming difficult to separate from the other. In Embrace, two bodies collide in a moment that Contis describes as “both aggressive and affectionate at the same time.” In Denim Dress, a student reclines in a field of grass, his skirted legs forming what looks like a mountain range. Here, again, ambiguity becomes a sign of openness and possibility. As the artist points out, the West has “always been thought of as a place where one can try on new identities, reinvent or discover oneself. And photography has always been used as a tool to construct new ideas about place and self, especially in the West.”
In her most recent series, Contis unearths largely unknown images from Dorothea Lange’s vast archive to reimagine her work in a startling artist book: Day Sleeper (2020). Three lush photogravures drawn from the project appear in Dorothea Lange: Words & Pictures, extending our understanding of Lange’s legacy and amplifying the resonance it holds for artists working today. Contis recounts, “It’s a collaboration, it’s a shared seeing of Dorothea’s world. My collaborator is no longer around, but she’s left all this stuff for me to root through.”
The research for this text was supported by a generous grant from The Modern Women's Fund.
River Encalada Bullock, Beaumont and Nancy Newhall Curatorial Fellow, Robert B. Menschel Department of Photography