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San Francisco Magazine

Higher Ed in the High Desert

By Ian A. Stewart

May 2017

A new BAMPFA exhibit explores college life…in the middle of nowhere.

Sam Contis, Cowboy, 2014, gelatin silver print.

What do you get when you combine a couple dozen all-male liberal arts school kids, a cattle ranch, and a 155-acre farm—and set it all in the middle of the desert? Inspiration, at least in the case of Berkeley artist Sam Contis.

Contis’s dive into life at Deep Springs College, a tiny all-male school located in the high desert of Inyo County 40 miles east of Bishop, is the subject of a new photography exhibit opening this month (May 3–Aug. 27) at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive as part of its Matrix series.

The images—a blend of stirring desert landscapes, meditative studies of the male form, and historical images taken from the school’s archive—feel like WPA tableaux whipped through a gender-fluidity blender. The school’s extreme environment acts as a backdrop to the self-discovery the students experience. “We go to wilderness to find ourselves,” Larry Rinder, BAMPFA’s director and chief curator, explains. “To get a challenge we don’t get in our everyday lives.”

In one image, Arbor, a long-haired student sits cross-legged among lush vines with a notebook. (The school—of which the novelist William T. Vollmann is an alumnus—sits beside an oasis amid the Deep Springs Valley desert.) Other images show students in dusty cowboy getups wrangling horses and cattle.

The exhibit’s range brings to mind several other notable photographers, Rinder notes, among them landscape masters like Robert Adams and Richard Misrach and portrait artists such as Larry Sultan and Sally Mann. “These are really beautiful photographs,” Rinder says. “I think the issues that arise in this work relate so much to things that are at the core of American identity and mythology.”


Originally published in the May issue of San Francisco