High in the California desert, southeast of the Sierra Nevadas and north of Death Valley, the remote, all-male liberal arts school known as Deep Springs College is tucked away between two mountain ranges.
The 100-year-old institution, founded by mining and electricity tycoon Lucien Lucius Nunn in 1917, has achieved near-mythic status. In the rugged, open landscape of the Deep Springs Valley, with the closest gas station or motel an hour away, its tiny all-male student body is schooled in more than just academics. Here, they’re also learning to be ranch hands, alfalfa farmers, and high-minded gentlemen.
The school is something of an intentional refuge from the wider world: It operates on a cashless basis, and there is no television, no alcohol or drugs, no cell phone reception, and only limited internet access.
Sam Contis, an Oakland-based photographer, has visited Deep Springs periodically for the past few years, capturing the school in intimate, sometimes wistful photographs that are currently on view at the Berkeley Art Museum, and will go on display at New York’s Klaus von Nichtssagend gallery from May 12th. “Part of what drew me to the college was a fascination with the mythology and iconography of the American West,” she says. “I wanted to engage with that landscape on a personal level. On the one hand it’s associated with ideas of freedom and self-determination, but it’s also associated with a rough, aggressive idea of masculinity. I wanted to reimagine this idea of the West.”
Contis’s images show the cowboy-students engaged in the manual labor that’s integral to the school’s program—shoeing horses, branding cattle, and cultivating the farm. But they also show the young men in quieter moments, reading, hanging clothes, or observing the natural world around them. Other photographs capture subtle environmental details—the mottled effect of light on a horse’s velvet coat, or the color gradations of a desert vista.
While a visceral sense of physicality pervades many of the photos, what Contis found at the school was not just a heroic conception of male identity—the dust-gnarled, stoic figures who populate Westerns and who form the backbone of America’s dream of Manifest Destiny. Rather, she experienced an open, accepting community in which a range of identities can thrive.
“The photos show the men performing the role of the iconic cowboy,” she says. “They brand cattle; they ride on horseback through the desert. But at the same time, I saw an experience of gender that was much more nuanced and ambiguous. Part of that comes from the isolation, from the all-male environment.”
Contis reflects this spectrum by invoking the iconography of the West—in photos like High Noon, Branding, and Cowboy, where the romance of this timeless archetype is laced through images of students wrestling and butchering animals or the silhouette of a young man in a cowboy hat—but complicating it with images like Blue Thumb, a close-up of two pairs of hands, working to deshell a sprout. (A close observer will notice one fingernail painted blue.)
In an equally unexpected image, a lithe, androgynous young man with blonde, shoulder-length hair and a ripped tie-dye t-shirt sits with crossed legs in an abundant arboretum.
One former Deep Springs student I spoke to—who preferred to remain anonymous—attested to the spectrum that Contis witnessed. Male students, he said, would often take on a range of responsibilities, from milking cows and collecting eggs to cooking in the school’s kitchen.
“I do believe that having an all-male environment required everyone to be a little more flexible with the roles they took on,” he says. “I wouldn’t characterize myself as female or feminine, but it’s something that people reflected back to me a couple of times while I was there.”
That doesn’t mean that Deep Springs is immune from the performance of a tougher masculinity, but even that can get complicated. “We did fight, that was something that happened,” the former student tells me. “There was a little bit of boxing while I was there. And that was just straight-up alpha domination stuff, but mixed in with people feeling really sensitive. So there was lots of crying after boxing.”
The Deep Springs alumnus described his time at the college as intense, challenging, and often lonely. But in some ways, that made the materiality of learning and culture at the school, and the intimacy of the community, especially meaningful.
“Since the community is really small, everyone in the community is really powerful,” he says. “Everyone is in a position to change things there. And that can be really inspiring—to believe that you’re in a position to change the world.”
American identity has historically been bound to the taming of the West, and the formation of individual identity has always had a relationship to the physical world. Contis has been particularly interested in both of these dynamics and—as she discovered while going through the archives at Deep Springs—they have also preoccupied students who photographed the school during their time there in earlier decades.
She found a resonance between her own work and images taken by these students—some of which she’s included in her monograph and in the exhibition at Berkeley. Those earlier images similarly show close-ups of body parts that echo the forms of the earth or mountains; figures shot from a distance, in the midst of the epic Deep Springs valley, are another recurring motif. Many of Contis’s predecessors seem to approach the human body in terms of the surrounding landscape.
“There seemed to be this conversation taking place between myself and earlier photographers,” she says. “They’re constantly thinking about issues of representation and identity, even over the last 100 years. And so, in some ways, that hasn’t really changed—how we construct our sense of place and self. That’s something that was alive in the past and is very much something that’s present.”