Photographing a Man's World: "Cowboys and Indians" by Marc Ohrem- Leclef
They live harsh, isolated lives herding cattle in northern Queensland, Australia. Appearing in pictures as strong and hardened figures worn beyond their young years, there is little that evokes a lonely romanticism or Wild-West gallantry in their faces or in the landscape around them. In other words, these are men at work, jackaroos, as they are known in their country, whose livelihood makes for as accurate an association with the likes of John Wayne or the Marlboro Man as these embodiments of masculinity compare with the prima ballerina in Swan Lake.
These jackaroos nevertheless make up one half of the deftly-titled "Cowboys and Indians," the first US exhibition by German photographer Marc Ohrem -Leclef, now on display at the German House through April 27. Not only is there a total absence of both cowboys and American Indians, there is not a single American element in the entire exhibition. The cultural reference of the outmoded, somewhat backward little boys' game is also nowhere to be found.
Ohrem-Leclef's "cowboys" are young, male, and reliant on the unforgiving line of work that takes them at times a hundred miles from the nearest human settlement and beyond the reach of any cell phone or radio reception. Unprotected in the wide open from accidents and run-ins with cattle, jackaroos are physically and mentally steeled against the demands of their environment.
Enlarge image Marc Ohrem-Leclef (© GKNY) Their physicality is captured in Ohrem-Leclef's photography, though he also uncovers the layers of "manliness" derived from the muscularity of their bodies. From this aesthetic standpoint, they are on equal footing with his "Indian" subjects- the second half of the work. Ohrem-Leclef's series of India-based photos focuses on Kushti, a form of traditional wrestling practiced by young men. Kushti values both physical strength and discipline, whose adherents train daily in akharas, consisting of sand pits where the fighting is conducted as well as the wrestlers' communal living quarters.
Ohrem-Leclef captured the daily training in one of these arenas, located in the middle of a densely populated Indian city. In addition to its emphasis on physical exertion and assertion, as well as an exclusively male community, the location also mirrors the Queensland environment in its relative isolation amidst the colorful chaos of the urban environment. With a strong connection to the Hindu religion, the adherents of Kushti are, like the jackaroos, both mentally and physically conditioned- and barely into adulthood.
"While I cannot deny a motivation to manifest some of the iconic, romantic ideas of masculinity, beauty, domination and strength associated with my subjects," writes Ohrem-Leclef in his artist statement, "it is the questioning and dismantling of these stereotypical notions that makes the photographic journey complete." The complexity Ohrem-Leclef has achieved in questioning these notions is clear in the photographs; whether viewed as a way to earn a living or as a revered traditional spiritual exercise, the figures attest to the variation in being, first and foremost, men. From an exhausted furrowed brow in a black-white shot against the bars of a corral to a quizzical glance in the mirror of the earth-colored fighting ring, the subjects' youthfulness also occasionally gives way to a decidedly "un-manly" anxiety, pensiveness, or unguardedness.
Where physical prowess is betrayed by a facial expression, Ohrem-Leclef shows how "incredibly awake," as he puts it, he had to be while investigating these two distant communities. The fascinating result both fulfils and defies expectations, and at any rate refuses to skim as lightly as those mythical cowboys and Indians might have done on the surface of masculinity.
Cowboys and Indians is on view at the German House through April 27, during regular business hours.