Lucas Foglia's new project, Frontcountry, took seven years to complete. Edited down from 60,000 photos to just 60, his pictures document the current mining boom transforming the American West. Depictions of rural Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming mark the contradictions of industry and wilderness as well as their importance to the people who live in these isolated places.
I wanted to know more about the West's new mining boom, the loss of traditions and how Foglia's own worldview changed since his first project, so I caught up with him for a beer just before the opening of his new show at Michael Hoppen Contemporary.
VICE: If you were to sum up the book in one sentence – how would you? What is it about?
Lucas Foglia: Well, I went to the American West expecting cowboys, ghost towns and wilderness. And when I got there, I found a mining boom – and cowboys. Frontcountry is a photographic account of two very different lifestyles that share and depend on the same landscape – ranching and mining.
Was that a surprise to you?
It was. That's what drew me back there to photograph more, and what led to the book ultimately. The idea that those two lifestyles share the same landscape – one based on tradition and history and the other so reliant on that idea of new money.
A lot of people in the book have had to transition from that old lifestyle into the new, I presume?
A number of the cowboys I photographed grew up as cowboys, and chose to stay that way. There's not a lot of money in it, so people do it for reasons based on the landscape, the history,and the satisfaction, knowing that its hard work. A lot of the people that I met who were in mining had grown up on ranches or had moved into the area from somewhere else.
That was another surprise. I had thought of cowboys as people who would be travelling around the landscape, but in fact miners are the modern-day nomads. They are following jobs across America. Every mine closes at some point. Either the price of the mineral goes down, or the mineral runs out. And when that happens the miners move. I quickly realised that the communities I photographed are far from cities but closely connected to the global economy. For example, in Nevada whole towns are built or abandoned in response to fluctuations in the price of gold. All mines have a life cycle.
Was there any tension between these two groups?
The landscape is big enough to hold many different lifestyles without them conflicting with one another. There's still more cows than people in the areas I photographed – these are some of the least populated parts of the United States.
In many of the photos the landscape's intimidating to me – the extent of the emptiness.
Have you ever seen two million acres of open space? The first time I encountered such place, I felt incredibly small. The land felt more powerful than I was. I think a lot of the people I met and photographed love the independence that it allows. They have made an effort to be there, and they are working hard to stay there.
I guess that's another thing that's incredible to me about this book. In most popular culture or coverage of America – certainly in the UK – one could well not realise that there are still areas like that in America. Empty wildernesses.
There's still more space (in terms of acres) in the States that's open than it is developed. It's not a frontier anymore. That landscape shows the evidence of generations of booms and busts – scars on the land from previous mines that closed, towns that were abandoned, new towns, ranches that have operated for generations. The history is evident in these places. but then you drive an hour between these towns and... it's big. It's vast.
Were the people you photographed aware of this transition they were part of? Is there some sadness or a feeling that they are being forced in some cases to work in mines or abandon the older way of life? Maybe I'm just romanticising.
It's a landscape that you only live in if you want to. There are exceptions of course, but everyone I met was working really hard to be able to live there. There is a sadness about losing that old way of life – I heard that a lot. But I hear that same sadness in a lot in cities too.
It's the same, when someone lives next to a vacant lot where a skyscraper is then built. Or my parents' farm outside New York, where I grew up; There are suburban houses on both sides of it now. That same tension is there as it is in the West. If anything it's just clearer in the West because the land's so open, and when it's mined, the scars are pretty deep and very visible.
So the land sort of emphasises these tensions and changes?
You have a ranch that's thousands of acres squared. A mine gets put there, and it's a hole two miles around. Then come the roads leading to it that are thirty metres wide, for trucks to drive in and extract tons of rock to make a tiny amount of gold – you feel it. You feel the loss of that.
There's a bunch of pictures in the book of the Big Springs ranch in Nevada. It's one of the few places in the State where there's enough water for cattle to graze all year. It's this green valley between high desert mountains, it's astoundingly beautiful. It was bought by the Newmont Mining Corporation, before the project started, and then leased to ranchers. But they have left now and its becoming a gold mine – the Long Canyon Gold Mine. It's the biggest gold deposit that's been discovered in Nevada in years, millions of dollars worth of gold. It's hard to argue with if a town's going to be built because of that.
Talking to you is surprising to me. Your first project, A Natural Order, was a beautiful depiction of mostly young and idealistic people, who turned their back on society and returned to the land. Obviously these two projects share themes about the importance of preservation of wilderness and so on. I guess I expected Frontcountry to be more overtly critical of the mining boom, but it isn't and I guess that's the point?
It's important to me that the photographs in the book don't tell people what to think. I hope they make people think, and feel something. But I want people to find their own answers. Giving answers is not what art's job is. It's a politicians job to tell you what to think, it's mine to ask questions.
The core issue for me is, what will keep people on this land and connected to this landscape? I think a frontier in the American West, that open space, is part of our identity and our mythology. When someone says "America", you probably think of New York, San Fransisco or LA, then cowboys somewhere in the middle? What happens if these cowboys aren't there? What keeps the open space open as a backdrop?
In A Natural Order, I photographed people who had chosen to leave cities and suburbs to move off the grid in Appalachia. I met everyone through friends of my family, and in many ways I was exploring my own past. At the centre of Frontcountry is a question on how to use land that is wild and open, on whether we should grow crops and raise animals or develop the land for faster money. That's a question that my family is facing today.
What's your overall feeling about the mining boom then?
Randy Stowell, one of the figures I met during the project, said to me while herding cattle on the Big Springs Ranch near Oasis, Nevada: “This little town has nothing. It’s dying on the vine. But when the company opens a mine here, it’ll bring jobs and make everything in town bigger and better. There are people who want that boost to the community. I’m not one of them. The mine will ruin this mountain and you’ll never find land this beautiful anywhere else.”
I believe there's a value in having open space and wild land. And I believe there's a value in having small communities of people living in rural spaces. I believe in that, I grew up with that. But the question remains; What jobs should be there to keep people in those communities?
Michael Hoppen Contemporary in London will exhibit the photographs from 28 March - 10 May. The book is published by Nazaeli Press.