Elliot Ross: Plainsmen
In Elliot Ross’s series, Plainsmen, we are called to the interior American West—a place which, from an outsider’s perspective, is generally romanticized and oversimplified. The region is too often ignored unless it is politically convenient, and it is sometimes flippantly referred to as flyover country. As a person who grew up in rural Colorado, Ross understands the complexities faced by residents in this part of the country. Though the project is sequenced with photographs of people and places, our awareness is continuously being redirected toward the younger generation. They embody the heritage and lifestyle of their parents and connote values typically associated with rural American communities, including honesty and hard work. Despite this, their futures remain uncertain due to growing social and economic distress. Ross poignantly brings this dilemma to our attention and asks us to consider the future of the West and its residents—not the West of mythology, but that of fragile reality.
Elliot Ross is a Colorado based photographer. Born in Taipei, Taiwan (1990), his interest for the photographic medium, rural frontiers and underserved communities developed during his upbringing on a homestead in the Colorado high-plains. In NYC, he trained as an assistant under Annie Leibovitz and Mark Seliger for a number of years. Ross’s work is invested in the effects of isolation on communities and the divisive, emotional nature of geopolitical borders including ongoing work in the U.S. / Mexico borderlands. His work has been internationally shown and published, with notable appearances in National Geographic Magazine, Vice and The Atlantic.
Perhaps no landscape is subject to romanticization more than the American West. Visions of grand mesas, snow-capped peaks and the ubiquitous cowboy on horseback define this vast, complex land. A land that begins on the banks of the Missouri River, unfurling across hundreds of miles of largely featureless plains, clear across the Rockies to the basins and ranges of Nevada, the canyons and deserts of the Southwest, to the Pacific Ocean.
For me, the American West is home and one that has provided more questions than answers. When I was four, my parents moved us from, of all places, Taipei, Taiwan where my Nebraskan-born father was living out his Far East aspirations with a Taiwanese woman he met in Colorado—my mother. This was a confounding experience for me as my reality shifted from a hyper-urban existence to one of piety and hard work on a remote homestead in Eastern Colorado. It was at this time that my grandmother gave me a point and shoot camera, and through the viewfinder, that I began compulsively exploring my new home. Photography became a tool to seek answers, something to hide behind, as well as a way to insert myself into new places.
What I have found in the twenty-five years since is not the land of the Marlboro Man, but one of the Plainsmen. Normal women and men who dedicate their lives to their community, their family, their Church, who lead a lifestyle that remains deeply private, modest and conservative. A life of manual labor that often goes overlooked, punctuated by simple pleasures of the county fair, a twelve seat movie theatre or a game of six-man football. I have also found a less flattering side. One made of insularity, anxiety, substance abuse and social ails that more often than not go unaddressed. Based on today’s trends, there’s cause for worry as the rural West slips deeper into the familiar woes of marginalized America—the youth are leaving for cities, infrastructure is in decline, access to healthcare oftentimes involves lengthy drives and education remains chronically underfunded in these rural districts.
These trends worry me, and with that, I look to today’s kids and wonder what their reality will become.
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