Photographer Jeremiah Ariaz, an associate professor of art at Louisiana State University’s College of Art + Design, explores the idea of landscape as a “man-made system,” rather than a part of the environment. His provocative series illuminate conflicting attitudes surrounding the American West, a place that is continually romanticized by our imagination and fictionalized by pop culture. In his most recent body of work, “Once Upon A Time In The West,” Jeremiah composes a trilogy out of photographs that he took in Tucumcari, NM, the Almeria region of Spain (where Sergio Leone filmed some of his famous spaghetti Westerns) and places across Germany. Together, these works force us to consider how a place with a historically rich identity, like the American West, has been reimagined and reinvented in a totally different time and place.
I first encountered Jeremiah’s work at his opening reception at Zeitgeist Gallery in Nashville, TN, in mid-January. Stretched across the white walls of the gallery were large format prints of landscapes and portraits, arranged like individual vignettes in much grander narrative. A culmination of years of field work and research across three distinct parts of the globe, “Once Upon A Time In The West“ is a series of photographs that juxtaposes the plains of the American Southwest with fabricated “Western” theater sets located in Germany and Spain. The uncanny visual similarities between these three distant locations calls to question our perception of real and imagined places.
Jeremiah’s work is emotive on many levels. I was initially stirred by the palpable sense of desolation in each shot, as if these environments could be the backdrop of Cormack McCarthy’s dark novel, No Country for Old Men. What was more disquieting, however, was the way the photographs functioned in sequence. The images captured in Tucumcari, a city that has experienced severe economic downturn over the last century, depict a foraged and forgotten place where big dreams culminated in small fortunes. The photographs from Spain and Germany, however, illuminate a romanticized “Western world” that has been kept alive, though artificially so, through costume and charade.
In Spain, Jeremiah ventured into the desert to three different movie sets that served as the backdrop of spaghetti Westerns. He also explored bars and brothels in surrounding towns that revealed a surprising kinship to the Western backdrops in their shape, color and character. In Germany, he attended outdoor theatrical productions of Native American re-enactments put on by local residents. Women dressed in fringed vests, face paint and head gear danced in front of tepees, while sun-weathered cowboys in tight chaps gracefully mounted their tamed steeds. When placed beside the Tucumcari shots, these images from Europe obscure the distinction between the “actual West and an imagined West.”
Given his childhood in Kansas, it’s no surprise that Jeremiah has an affinity for Western landscapes. Perplexed and intrigued by society’s romanticized idea of the American West, he approached the subject through a critical lens, with the intention of challenging what we presume is reality or artifice. Once you witness the bizarre Native American and cowboy re-enactments across Europe, you sense that the “West,” a symbol of opportunity and prosperity, is perhaps a fictionalized place—a place in flux, a place with an ever-evolving identity—as much as it is an actual place. By providing a glimpse into cities that are littered and layered with decades of decay and rebirth, Jeremiah is perhaps asking us “how did we get here and where will we go next?”
Jeremiah has continued to photograph in different parts of the world. Selections from his newest series, entitled “Trail Riders,” which is still in progress, can be viewed here. Jeremiah is represented by Zeitgeist Gallery. Click here to see works available for purchase.
A special thanks to Jeremiah for sharing his work and insight with us today. To see more of his photography, please visit his website.