Photo books that make me smile are rare. Sandy Carson’s “I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart” is one of them for this Scotsman has an eye for the absurdities of daily American life. He sees what most Americans probably do not really see – that the things they surround themselves with have often a distinct (and very American) weirdness to them. A Texas-shaped waffle on a plate, for instance, or a stranded thrift store named Possibilities.
Sandy Carson came to the United States in the 1990s and has since spent his life in Texas. And, quite obviously, he is still baffled by what he is observing. “I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart,” this 12-year project, is testimony to this.
His outsider’s view is a sympathetic wondering about this strange, fascinating and also somewhat childlike place for it seems to represent the (often crashed) hopes and dreams of children. Needless to say, Americans most probably won’t see themselves that way yet I do – and I find this view also represented in these pictures.
Take for instance the pic that shows an empty room (probably a former shop) with a sign on the window that says ANSWERS, ANSWERS. To what?, one might wonder. Or the sign near a supermarket, in front of which a saleswoman is checking her cell phone, that says: HONK IF YOU LOVE LIBERTY (nothing, it seems to me, defines Americanness better than turning whatever – liberty, in this case – into something you can sell).
And then there are the signs where some letters are missing – a movie theatre called SKYLINE where below the name it says: NO SHOWING THIS WEE,” for instance – or are askew like the first three letters of the ALCOHOLICOS ANONIMOS-sign (as if they had stumbled because of being drunk). No doubt, Carson possesses an “instinct for the bizarre,” as Katherine Parhar termed it.
Although my genuinely sympathetic view of America has gotten a severe beating after Trump became a parttime-resident of the White House (he seems to spend a lot of time in Florida when not watching Fox News in Washington), I still very much warm to Carson’s observations that I perceive to be taken with empathy.
I also very much liked Katherine Parhar’s essay on Carson and this tome, “a Scot writing about a Scot who photographs America, like others before him, with an eye to the outside, to the edgelands …”. I thought it particularly fitting that she also refers to Swiss-born Robert Frank whose American photographs are characterised by the kind of outsider’s view that I believe is not really possible to people born and raised in the United States. Come to think of it, there are exceptions tough, as my numerous photo-discussions with Americans suggest that.
Katherine Parhar rightfully points out that “this book is not a grand narrative. It deals in small (and tall) tales of America, heartfelt, which today is a precious thing.” Indeed!
Also, I thought this observation of her very much to the point. “To see them as he saw them is to feel like you are happening on a project that romanticises both the unravelling of the American Dream and the vaulting hope it still stirs. It is to accept both Americas, the degenerate and the hopeful, as true.”
Moreover, keeping in mind that photographs often remind us of what is not anymore, I see these pics as documents of a childlike innocence that somehow seems to have evaporated by the dominating media prominence of the divisive Mr. Trump.
I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart
by Sandy Carson
Yoffy Press, Atlanta, GA
To purchase the book: http://www.yoffypress.com/cowboy