Nearly 300 miles east of San Francisco, in a dry high-desert valley just the other side of California’s Sierra Nevada mountain range, sits Deep Springs College — an all-male, liberal arts institution that seeks to “prepare young people for a life of service to humanity . . . by bringing students into intense contact with nature, work and ideas”.
The college was founded exactly 100 years ago by the hydroelectricity tycoon and philanthropist Lucien Lucius Nunn, who believed that this isolated desert wilderness and the American West in general offered rich opportunities for young men to learn autonomy, self-governance and individual virtues. Today, it continues to admit between 12 and 15 students each year; applicants are appraised not only on their academic performance but also on their ability to demonstrate curiosity, self-reflection, a strong work ethic and clear communication skills. Prospective students are called in for interview by a panel of faculty and current students and, once an applicant is accepted, his tuition, room and board are entirely free of charge. After two years at Deep Springs, most graduates tend to continue their studies elsewhere, often at elite universities such as Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Oxford and Cambridge.
With an academic curriculum that covers everything from political theory, ethics, philosophy, sociology, economics, literature, gender studies, natural and physical sciences and more, students are expected to read a wide range of authors from Plato, Shakespeare, Nietzsche and Heidegger to Emily Dickinson, James Baldwin, Joan Didion and Judith Butler. And alongside their coursework, all the students engage in at least 20 hours of manual labour each week, maintaining the general campus and its facilities, supporting the college’s 155-acre alfalfa farm or working on its ranch, which has more than 200 head of beef cattle.
“People often refer to the young men there as ‘cowboy scholars’,” the artist Sam Contis observes, “but their experience is so much more varied than that simple description suggests.” While pursuing her MFA at Yale University, Contis learnt of Deep Springs through her fellow students, several of whom had previously studied there. When she settled in California in 2012, she decided to visit the college and explore it more thoroughly. Over the course of the past four years, she has regularly travelled to Deep Springs, photographing its students, its landscape and its culture from an intriguing and complex perspective.
“The American West always felt like such a distant place to me — even a fantasy of a place, perhaps because it’s been so mythologised,” she explains. “There’s a certain iconography that’s been imprinted into our imaginations. But spending time at Deep Springs helped me realise just how much more multi-faceted the West actually is. In making this work, I wanted to try to reimagine my sense of this place, and in some ways to construct a new visual language for myself.”
Conscious of her own and wider society’s familiarity with both the landscape and the “cowboy” mythology of the American West — dominated by notions of ruggedness, brutality, fierce independence and other heightened expressions of conventional masculinity — Contis looked at Deep Springs from a very different direction, emphasising the intimacy, tenderness and shared sense of openness and freedom that thrive within this isolated and tightly knit all-male community.
An unpredictable sensuality runs throughout her images — the men hold, hug and wrestle, they gently tend their crops, ride together on horseback through the wilderness, eye the horizon dreamily, caress their skin and cut one another’s hair. At times, her work is even more explicit in its alternative interpretation, carefully excavating the subtle sexuality that courses beneath the surface of the action. Dirt-covered fingers delicately cradle a pair of smooth, ivory-like eggs; a collection of weathered hands and knives intimately pry open long tears in the raw flesh of a slaughtered cow; three figures emerge waist-high from the thin black trench that they are digging and which, in the process, seems to be swallowing them up; a sun-blushed boy wearing a denim dress lies languidly in a field, his eyes gently closed, his legs spread apart.
“The nature of the place doesn’t feel fixed,” Contis explains. “It’s constantly evolving. It felt like a model for the future — for education, for community, for ideas of the West. Not in the sense that it’s entirely male, of course, but in the sense that there is room for many different versions of masculinity here, which are not defined by gender stereotypes. There are many ways to be, and there’s a feeling of ‘becoming’, where nothing is fixed and everything is malleable. That’s what I wanted to capture in my images.”
Contis admits that, at least in the beginning, she struggled to make pictures in this landscape: “The history of photography and the history of the American West are inextricably linked — photography was invented just a few years before the Gold Rush — so by photographing in the West today, it felt as if I was trying to take on the history of the medium itself. It was an overwhelming prospect.”
She saw that not only is the mythology of the American West dominated by a masculine ideal, but that the prevailing history of images made in the Western landscape is also dominated by men. She runs through a list of photographers: “Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, Edward Curtis, Ansel Adams, Richard Avedon, Richard Prince and so on. Part of engaging with this frontier made famous and predominantly pictured by men was trying to wrestle that photographic history on a personal level. The young men that I photographed have an incredibly expansive perspective as to what masculinity can be, and in making work in an environment that is nominally ‘all-male’ I was able to picture an experience that is so much more nuanced and open to different ways of being.” (Interestingly, in 2011, Deep Springs College’s board of trustees voted to accept female students into its programme for the first time, but a cohort of alumni has been legally challenging the decision ever since, blocking the admission of women to this day; the issue remains in active litigation.)
Yet, ultimately, although Contis’s Deep Springs is situated within this unique and fascinating century-old institution, it’s far from a straightforward documentary project about the college itself. Instead, Contis is exploring the “intense contact with nature, work and ideas” that sits at the heart of the Deep Springs philosophy in a myriad of profound personal and unexpectedly resonant ways. “Really, it’s about me trying to make a space for myself in the American West,” she reflects. “It’s very much my vision of a place — it’s rooted in real experience, but is also a myth of my own making.” © Sam Contis © Sam Contis Aaron Schuman is an American artist, writer, lecturer and curator based in the UK; “Deep Springs” by Sam Contis is published by MACK, €40/£35/$45; mackbooks.co.uk. Works from this series are showing in Matrix 266 at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive until August 27, and at Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery, New York, until June 18; bampfa.org; klausgallery.com