hilton_280Freedom. If cowboy wisdom could be summed up in one word, that’s it. The freedom to ride the prairie, the freedom to make a homestead, and to defend that sanctuary from transgressors. To the death if necessary. The cowboy is the American dream personified, encompassing a particular strain of taciturn spirituality gleaned from the land, from hours and days spent with just a horse for company between the man and the horizon.

It’s a romantic image; as a myth it’s a heady mix of heritage and Hollywood, with the latter informing the former most likely more than plain facts would allow. As a crosscurrent to contemporary American culture, the cowboy aesthetic enters a confluence with country and western music and with rodeo and, from an outsider’s perspective anyway, it’s come to stand for a ballsy Texan Republicanism espoused by a president who borrowed its mores and its lexicon to justify his crusade against evil. Yet, in simple terms, a cowboy is a man who works with livestock, herding cattle, trading horses.

In Jane Hilton’s intimate portraits, these 21st century cowboys are removed from these competing narratives, and from their beloved outdoors, and we encounter them in that most surprising location: the bedroom. Ever since she was first invited to supper by Johnny Green, a veteran cowboy who sold horses to John Wayne (every cowboy worth his spurs has a John Wayne story), Hilton was captivated by the interior life of men who spend their life outside. Her eye was drawn to the stuffed elk heads, the belt buckle collections, the stirrups strung above the bed that brought the spirit of the land into their domestic space.

Since 2006, Hilton has collected this series of portraits from the buckaroos of Nevada to the cowpunchers of Arizona and Texas. On one of these trips in March 2006, she was diverted to Cortez, Colorado, on a commission for The Times of London, to photograph a young cowboy called Jeremiah Karsten who had taken two years to travel from Alaska to the Mexican border on horseback: the cowboy’s cowboy, still living the dream. She chose the title for this body of work and her forthcoming book, Dead Eagle Trail, from an experience in southern Nevada, when she happened upon a golden eagle, a huge creature, the size of an Alsatian dog, lying dead by the side of the road. Hilton tried to photograph its noble beauty-in-death, but remained dissatisfied with her images. When she returned to the site of its roadside deathbed the following day, it had disappeared.

While cowboy mythology is resolutely embedded in American culture, real and imagined, it is harder to sustain these days as a way of life, with average wages of just a few dollars an hour. Some have chosen to diversify, offering dude-ranch holidays and leasing out land to hunters. The bigger ranches are succumbing to the lure of developers; many have already been sub-divided and sold off because there is more money in land than in beef.  Yet as long as America’s immense appetite for home-grown beef continues, there will be a cowboy to tend those cows. Don’t fence him in.
Max Houghton

Dead Eagle Trail will be exhibited at HOST Gallery from 21 April – 3 June 2010. Jane Hilton’s limited edition prints are available from Foto8. A version of this story is published in the new Spring/Summer issue of 8 Magazine, out late April.

Purchase a signed copy of Dead Eagle Trail by Jane Hilton

Dead Eagle Trail <br>by Jane Hilton, signed copy

Dead Eagle Trail
by Jane Hilton, signed copy

Dead Eagle Trail is the culmination of numerous road trips
Jane Hilton has taken across the United States whilst
documenting the fading legacy of American Cowboy culture.
This book is a celebration of The West, from the buckaroos
of Nevada to the cowpunchers of Arizona…
Hardbound, Dust Jacket
80 colour photographs, 94 pages
33cm x 27cm, Schilt Publishing