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Book of the Week: Selected by Blake Andrews

Book Of The Week I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart Photographs by Sandy Carson Reviewed by Blake Andrews I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart is Carson’s outsider's observations of the weird happenstances that present itself on the great American road trip, as seen through the wide eyes of a Scotsman. This 12-year project chronicles his fascination with everyday occurrences in the social landscape and explores the spaces between clarity and imperfection, composing a personal slice of America.
I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart  
Photographs by Sandy Carson

Yoffy Press, Atlanta, USA, 2019. In English. 128 pp..

“I’ve Always Been A Cowboy In My Heart,” declares the title of Sandy Carson’s new monograph. Looking at the photos inside it’s hard to argue. They take the viewer on a visual rodeo ride. But along the way to being a cowboy (in his heart), Sandy Carson has been a bunch of other things: Ex-pat, cinematographer, touring musician, and fifteen years as a professional bike rider.

The BMX tour is where he first honed his photographic skills, shooting colleagues for magazines and industry literature from an insider’s perspective. Perhaps there is some overlap in the skill sets required to shoot stunt bikers and bronco riders? The book’s opening icon suggests as much. It’s the stencil of a lone cowboy riding horseback, arms aloft, the same pose assumed by some BMX jumpers as they leap across the void…into a nasty pileup. Or so the next image—an upended marquee, metal legs flailing backwards—would have us believe.

The photos to follow are less topsy-turvy, yet the worldview remains askance. The scenes are chosen from across the West but mostly Texas, half a world and several template zones removed from Carson’s native Scotland. Although he has lived in the U.S. for decades, Carson still registers his adopted surroundings with the sharp, slightly bemused insight of an outsider, as if asking, “Great Scott, what land is this?”

“There’s just a lot of really uncanny juxtapositions that present [themselves] on American road trips that you would never see in Scotland,” Carson told his local NPR affiliate. “And I really just pick up on that. I’ve been here for so long – I’ve been in Texas longer than I [lived] in Scotland – but I still feel there’s a lot to see. And I still feel like my eyes are really still wide open to what I’m picking up on here, and that’s just kind of where the project came from.”

The American West may be fundamentally ineffable, but Carson has managed to impose his own order upon it. To him, it’s a visual playground of long roads, arid spaces, and cultural incongruities. Each photo captures a minor absurdity. A tree advertised with a “Free” sign. A store called “Die Mart”. A formal chair set in the river shallows. A deserted sedan is full of currency. And so on. Fans of David Graham, Phil Bergerson, and Zoe Strauss will find a lot to like here.

I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart. By Sandy Carson.

Stripped of context and with no supporting information, Carson’s photos hint at stories we can only guess at. And after all, that’s the peculiar gift of good photography. A slice of 2D material can only show so much, often the less the better. Cropped tightly to their subjects, Carson’s scenes leave plenty of room for wonder, and for the mind to wander.

I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart. By Sandy Carson.
The book is comprised mainly of medium format color, 6x6. But every dozen pages or so—covering a full spread—is a custom postcard, printed with conventional aspect ratio. Both sides of the card are displayed, the scenic front and postmarked back. It’s here that Carson’s handwritten reports from the road recount impressions and odd incidents in a deadpan, wish-you-were-here tone.

I admit to having a soft spot for photographic postcards, and these pictures are a highlight for me. There’s something in their vernacular, low-brow nature, tangibility, and road-trip revelation which appeals. As Katherine Parhar notes in the afterword, Stephen Shore tapped into all these aspects with his fake Amarillo postcard series. And Carson’s postcards have some of the same spirit. They mimic the real thing—in a sense, they are real—while steering far from typical traveler-memento material. A photo of a lazy dog on the side is an image you’d never find at the local tourist bureau. Nor is a destroyed gas station, or a Texas-shaped waffle. And yet it’s photos like these which perhaps reveal more about their locales than scenes captures through a typical fine art filter.

I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart. By Sandy Carson.

This book has a few special flourishes. Carson’s handwritten captions are a great touch. They’re written in the same style as the postcards and scanned from a travel journal. For the postcard fans like myself, there’s a real card included. It’s tucked in an envelope in the book’s center, blank and ready for the reader’s handwriting. The book closes with Parhar’s essay, and end pages repeating the cowboy stencil. Altogether a nice production from Yoffy.

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I’ve Always Been a Cowboy in My Heart. By Sandy Carson.

Blake Andrews is a photographer based in Eugene, OR. He writes about photography at