The two-lane blacktop slices through the high Nevada desert, as Jane Hilton’s 1966 gold Mustang speeds past sagebrush and tumbleweed toward snow-clad mountains hovering like clouds in the distance. This lonely, desolate stretch of U.S. Route 50 is far from London, England — where she lives — yet she couldn’t feel more at home.
Since her first trip to the States — in 1988, to Tucson, Arizona — Hilton has been captivated by the American West. In its endless desert stretched out beneath clear-blue skies, she sees the unlimited hope and possibility of the American Dream. This theme runs throughout her documentary photographs — of the Las Vegas Strip and its 24- hour weddings, of cowboys and Nevada’s legal brothels.
So far, Hilton is best known for her photographs of Nevada buckaroos, Arizona and Texas cowpunchers, Wyoming ranchers and Colorado livestock traders. Unlike possibly any other professional photographs of cowboys out there, her portraits show the men in their own homes. They made their debut in her first monograph, Dead Eagle Trail (Schilt Publishing, 2010), soon to be joined by her second book, on Nevada’s prostitutes, Precious (Schilt Publishing, 2013).
“I’ve always been interested in people, and that’s why I became a documentary photographer,” Hilton tells me by phone from a roadside café in Nevada, her favorite Western state. “I try to be nonjudgmental. But I also show a lot of subtle details in my photographs, so that every time you look at the same one, you see things you didn’t see before.”
I’ve looked dozens of times at her picture of Johnny Green, a livestock trader in Cortez, Colorado. In brown bib overalls and a cowboy hat, he sits on his sofa draped with a country quilt and Pendleton wool blanket, in a living room packed with books and beer steins, framed pictures and spurs. I keep noticing one more thing. And then there’s the one of Ron Redford, a cowboy in Benjamin, Texas, sitting on his bed with his leather work gloves by his side and his gaze turned toward some distant horizon. There’s a lot to see in those eyes.
Says Hilton, “I wanted to document these cowboys before the ranches started dwindling.” She acknowledges that they already have, thanks to new technologies, rising gas and feed costs, and developers buying up the land.
Their threatened way of life may not be the only reason why Redford and most of the other cowboys in Dead Eagle Trail look a bit ill at ease, wearing their spotless blue jeans and freshly pressed shirts as if they dressed up for the occasion. They’re also removed from their “natural habitat.” Most pictures of cowboys show them galloping and lassoing, riding bucking rodeo bulls and branding calves. When Hilton did go outside for her “Dead Eagle Trail” series, few people passed in front of her lens — leaving mostly grassland and mesa, a few grazing horses and a startled deer in those photos. So, she chose to pose her subjects in their living rooms and bedrooms.
“I can see why she would,” says 47-year-old Jason Pelham, one of the cowboys in her book. But he sure didn’t expect it. He talked with me by sketchy cell phone, on horseback while he rounded up cattle on the state-run ranch he works in Canadian, Texas. Though visitors often pass through Pelham’s home, he says that for most cowboys, “Nobody looks inside their houses. It’s a new angle. I think you can tell a lot about somebody by going inside their house, whether it’s their home or just a place they go and stay, and seeing the things they have that mean something to them.” Hilton’s book is filled with what she calls “Western artifacts.” She views the horse figurines and pictures of Wild West cowboys, the cowhide rugs and mounted elk antlers as “shrines to the Western lifestyle” and as “a craving to collect and preserve their way of life.”
More of this article can be read in the Winter 2012 issue.