When you take a digital photo, light streams into the camera lens, which adjusts to the subject’s form. The light hits the sensor array and breaks into millions of pixels. Each pixel, varying in color and brightness, forms your composite image. You would think photographs are the most literal artistic medium. They capture forms as they are, atom by atom, pixel by pixel, impressions of the light that is our way of seeing. Which is why, I think, documentary portrait photography like that of Sophie Green and Robert Skinner is so arresting: What was fiction or unknown to us before proves to be real, a reflection of humankind in all its variety.
Sophie Green, born in 1991, is a London-based photographer, a self-described specialist in social documentary and portraits. She shot “Cowboy Country” for Modern Weekly Magazine, in collaboration with stylist Adam Winder and journalist Ellie Harrison. Alongside a horse’s mouth—the rein is embellished with red, white and blue rhinestones and a big gaudy star—is an old cowboy in the same pose. His side profile is a bit rugged, skin rough.
He looks straight ahead and his face is stony. He sports a black cowboy hat, spurs on his shoulder, a clean black shirt. There is a beautiful order and gravity to the photo. Green captures a butt in Levi’s and fringe cowhide chaps, hands folded royally over the lower back. She also includes booted feet, a girl getting her chaps laced up and two boys with lassoes standing on a hay bale (one wears a collared shirt with the American flag printed on it).
Initially, you think that she has traveled to Utah or Wyoming or West Texas to capture the animal herders or rodeo performers of the Wild West tradition. But she shot these in England, in little counties like Devon and Kent, and the chaps come from a fashion house. “Cowboy Country” is a series about British Western riding, which claims communities all over the English countryside and even a British Rodeo Cowboys Association (BRCA). Bored of conventional English horseback riding, riders put on rodeos, cattle and horsemanship shows, and athletic games that include “Cloverleaf Barrel Racing” and “Pole Bending,” as mandated by the BRCA. Green styled her subjects in Gucci, Givenchy, Louis Vuitton and Dior to highlight the “showmanship” of their trade. She commented in an interview, “Riders love to dress up and win marks for good presentation at competitions—the aesthetics of western riding are really important and quite flamboyant too. Riders ask designers to make their outfits especially for competition” (It’s Nice That, “Sophie Green’s latest project ventures into England’s unlikely cowboy country,” 11.13.2018).
Robert Skinner is an architectural photographer, but his pictures of the Borscht Belt—even those without people in them—are sadly, painfully human. For his personal series “Searching For America,” he went to Sullivan County, NY, nestled in the Catskills and a popular vacation spot for Jewish families from the 1920s to the 1970s. In stark contrast to “Dirty Dancing,” which takes place in one of these ritzy resorts at their heyday, it is peppered with abandoned hotels. Often denied accommodation at other vacation spots, Jewish New Yorkers, many of them Eastern European immigrants, frequented the summer homes, bungalows, hotels and ski ranges of the Catskills, which were nicknamed the Jewish Alps. In fact, the area is known as the Borscht Belt.
With the commercialization of air travel, however, vacationers fled the Catskills for other destinations. Many of the resorts crumbled, making for a haunting collection of photographs from Skinner.
Although he shot the people that still live there, you cannot help but feel wistful seeing them—perhaps because the backdrops are sparse and sad or perhaps because Skinner includes in the series the derelict buildings once brimming with New Yorkers. A little girl named Haley stares coolly at you, holding a rifle, with some relatives and a gloomy field behind her. “Johnny Sykes, Buck Hill” is a photo of a stout old man standing in front of the abandoned Buck Hill Inn.
Skinner said, “I realized that the people I was asking about where to find the resorts were the most interesting part of the landscape” (National Public Radio, “Beyond The Borscht Belt: Life After The Catskills’ Heyday Of Hotels,” 09.20.2013).
Undeniably, the abandoned places are more chilling with real people in them, sporting straight faces or confused looks rather than the gleaming smiles of old Borscht Belt postcards.
“Cowboy Country” is warm and saturated, with textures and colors varying from horse hair braided in a chain link pattern to a pair of haute patent-leather riding boots. The Borscht Belt pictures from “Searching For America,” however, are monochromatic and nostalgic but not playful, evoking dystopia with their cluttered commercial structures and melancholy locals.
The people in both series look incredibly serious and dignified. They assert their presence, know who they are and prove to be a testament not only to the “idiosyncrasies and nuances of the human experience,” as Green always intends to capture, but also to how portraiture lends itself to this end.
She commented, “I identify subjects who exist on the edge of society who are often under represented [sic] in the mainstream” (LensCulture, “About Sophie Green”).