Looking West

John D. Dorst’s book, Looking West, explores visual practices and ways of seeing that he argues are particular to the American West, but also characteristic of modern “western” consumer culture.  Through a close reading of a photograph (reproduced on the cover), Dorst takes a studio portrait of Buffalo Bill Cody and Sitting Bill and dissects the multiple lines of sight, gazes, and sets the whole image against the background of a standard joke about Native peoples as “unseen seers” — the two subjects share the same plane, but not the same authority, and not the same gaze.

Distance can be a disorienting feature of prairie landscapes.  Mountains might look near, but are actually quite far away.  On the farm for July 1, we were able to watch fireworks from a neighbouring town – 16 km away!

Looking west with a 300 mm lens that compresses the perspective and makes the mountains look comparatively larger.

Seeing things differently then, has regional connotations that are rarely explored.  Visiting Calgary during Stampede, my son immediately noticed that everyone dressed up to a degree that he had never experienced before — from clerks to cashiers to bankers, dressing the part is a regular part of civic duty during those ten days in July (along with pancake breakfasts on a massive industrial scale).  But dressing the part is not necessarily “seeing things” the same way — and there has never been unanimity about exactly which “western” traditions the Stampede is supposed to symbolize.  Indeed, within the Stampede grounds, there are many ways of looking — from corny gimmicks and midway extravaganzas to the small scale inspection of cow and horse breeds, from big-tent professional rodeo events to the more intimate events that showcase horsemanship on a much smaller (and ethically more acceptable) way.  And of course it was the hottest Stampede in memory which meant that many noticed the lack of attire worn by some ( google “Calgary Trampede” for more blogs that comment on this aspect of the show ).  Add in the complicating gazes of the Indian Village and a Canadian military display that had a missile with a saddle on it for kids to ride ( or for stoners to recreate the infamous scene from Dr. Strangelove, I guess ) and it doesn’t take long to agree with Dorst that “The optical discourse that stands at the heart of our advanced consumer social order is itself brought up close for inspection, sometimes in funny or offhand ways, in the vast text of the West.” (p. 9)

So, in honour of gazes seen and unseen at the Stampede, a quick shot of a fiddler — part of a family of fiddlers — who, just after I took this picture, started playing their own acoustic version of Guns ‘N Roses’ “Sweet Child of Mine.”  Really.