In 2002 Dutch filmmakers Peter Delpeut and Mart Dominicus made a documentary film Go West Young Man, to celebrate hundred years of the Western movie genre. As a parallel photography project their producer Pieter van Huystee invited me to realize large format panoramas of the American West. After spotting my series of goalkeepers in Dutch and Belgium landscapes he was curious what I would do with the American landscape, he said.
Though my project was independent from the film, I had a meeting with filmmakers Peter and Mart before I left. In their synopsis they wrote about director John Ford and the way he treated Monument Valley in his films. It would always be a backdrop, he never used the astonishing landscape as a subject on it’s own. I really liked that strategy and his way of thinking. I decided to do a project in which I could play around the issue of a subject in relation to a backdrop.
I told Pieter van Huystee I would put something on distance in those empty landscapes as a reference, probably a horse. I wanted to play with the cliché of the enormous scale of the American landscape. Which is first of all a time based experience: driving for hours on an interstate and hardly meeting anybody. As time is usually brief in photography it seemed not very appropriate to emphasize this enormousness in a single picture, but I could at least try to suggest the endless wilderness.
Arriving on a ranch in New Mexico for the first shoot, I looked around for a location without any size references, such as buildings. It should be only a horse on distance relating to the landscape. The owner of the ranch asked me if I wanted a dark or a white horse. We decided to bring both to the spot. He was sitting on one and took the other on the lead. That moment I realized a man on a horse was a much better cliché to embrace, instead of using just a horse in a landscape. (see image one and two of slide-show)
From then on my friend photographer Julian Germain, who came along on that trip, and I had a lot of fun in discovering film cliché’s in the landscape around us. Still a cowboy driving to the horizon, crossing a river or overlooking a valley from a steep hill can be photographed in many ways. What I learned most from this project was how I could change through a simple intervention an overwhelming landscape into a backdrop of a story. As soon as the cowboy on his horse rides into the picture frame, the landscape seems to know its place. The whole image suddenly turns into a story and the landscape turns into a backdrop.
John Ford was ignoring the overwhelming beauty of Monument Valley, just to avoid the cliché. And that is how I think it works: the backdrop in our life is more realistic when it appears as a backdrop on our photographs. The moment we start to photograph it as a subject, it’s getting less real and more of a cliché.
The panoramic photographs up to five meter large were exhibited at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam in 2003 and in 2004 at Colette in Paris.