Songs, books and films have romanticized the image of the cowboy as an enigmatic hero–a man and his horse, alone on the range. In Dead Eagle Trail, Jane Hilton gives us a glimpse of the man behind the myth—not busting broncos, but simply seated on the edge of his beds, in spartan rooms, in living rooms crammed full of memorabilia, or watching TV next to his gun safe. “It isn’t just about them,” says Hilton of the four-year project, “it’s about their homes.”
Hilton—whose own house in London, with its wall-mounted horns, cow hides and paintings picked up from each trip west, has come to resemble a cowboy’s lair—came to the project by chance. Working on an assignment in 2006 about a teenage cowboy who had traveled from Alaska to Mexico astride his horse, she was invited to dinner at livestock trader Johnny Green’s house. There, to her amazement, she found herself in a living room crammed full of horns, paintings, belt buckles and saddles. “I said ‘I’m sorry, but I’m going to have to take your portrait,’” says Hilton. She returned the next morning with her 4×5 camera, capturing Green on his sofa, gun in hand.
Having spent the last two decades documenting stories in the American west, like McDonald’s-style weddings in Las Vegas and legalized prostitution in Carson City, Nevada, Hilton had already come to love the wide-open spaces. But getting to work with men who seemed the last of a breed, living close to nature, people Hilton describes as “good, moralistic and down to earth,” made this a plum project. “They’ll never earn lots of money,” says Hilton. “But they don’t want for anything. As long as they have good food, and a beer at the end of the day, they’re happy.”
Hilton is now is working on a film about the men. The first, an eight-millimeter short, shows 24-year-old Jeremiah Karsten, the young cowboy whose odyssey helped kick off Hilton’s project, bottle-feeding newborn calves, baling hay, and saddling up his horse. “The photos in the book are quite intense,” says Hilton, “but they don’t show you the heart of what they do.”
And while what they do may seem to be a relic of times gone by—smaller ranches have to sell land to developers, lease land for hunting, or offer themselves up as dude ranches to stay afloat—the trade won’t entirely disappear. “The guys tell me,” says Hilton, “as long as people eat steak, there will always be cowboys.”
–By Deirdre van Dyk. Produced by Natalie Matutschovsky
Jane Hilton’s Dead Eagle Trail will be on exhibit at New York’s Nailya Alexander Gallery from May 25 to July 8.
Hilton will be giving an artist’s talk, and showing her film, at the Aperture Foundation on May 26 at 6:30pm.