Building on her previous investigations of masculinity and the American soldier, Kristine Potter's new book Manifest turns to a parallel archetype - the cowboy
“What’s more American, iconic, and masculine than a cowboy?” asks Kristine Potter. “There is so much control within the military, so I wanted to pivot to a more lawless, unpredictable form of masculinity”.
Coming from a long line of military men on both sides of her family, Potter has long been interested in broadening the spectrum of permissible masculinity. After completing The Gray Line, a project that looks at young male cadets, she started to think about forms of masculinity other than that familiar from her youth.
Potter was first introduced to photography during her undergraduate degree in Art History at the University of Georgia, where she took part in introductory classes with guest lecturer Mark Steinmetz. “That was life-altering for me,” she says, “I was exposed to this breadth of amazing photography that just wasn’t part of my life until then. It pivoted my experience of photography into a much richer vocabulary”.
Between 2012 – 2015, Potter travelled along through Colorado, stopping to photograph nomadic men in the vast landscape that they inhabited and under the glaring light of the American West. “The light is extraordinary out there,” she says. “It’s just penetrating, you feel like you can barely even have shadows there’s so much of it.”
In the early stages of Manifest, Potter was only interested in taking portraits. But because the area was so remote, she would often go days without finding anyone to photograph, so she started to shoot the landscape as well. “It became a wonderful surprise and challenge in the work,” she says.
The title of her project references the “manifest destiny”, a widely-held belief in 19th century America that its settlers were destined by God to spread democracy and capitalism across the continent. “Manifest destiny speaks about the future, but I don’t think what I’m looking at holds that same meaning,” Potter explains. “I was more interested in where we are now, and the way we see things that we already have ideas about.
“There are lots of reasons why I decided to head West,” she adds, explaining how the advent of photography followed the settlement of the American West in the 17th century, and her fascination with early landscape photographs that she describes as “epic male pictures”.
She became intrigued by the gendered way in which landscapes are described, she says, as something that needs to be possessed or conquered. But in Manifest, the men are vulnerable to the landscape, and they fit within it rather than as someone who wishes to possess it.
“I wanted to make interesting pictures that detailed this kind of disorientation and impenetrability,” she explains. “I wanted the landscape to feel more threatening and immediate.”
www.kristinepotter.com Manifest is published by TBW Books, priced $45 www.tbwbooks.com/collections/single-titles/products/manifest