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February 20th, 2008 RICHARD SPEER | Visual Arts
 

Westward ho!

Two photographers find gold—and brothels—in them thar hills.

     
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Bodie by Berthold Steinhilber

Leave it to the Europeans to find the essence of the American West. The Italians, with their spaghetti westerns, left us whistling Morricone long after Autry and Rogers rode into the sunset, and now, of all people, a German photographer named Berthold Steinhilber has captured something of the West that no American ever could.

Steinhilber’s haunting prints are the centerpiece of Gallery Homeland’s group photography show, Wild, Wild West, curated by local artist Todd Johnson. The show’s conceit (a survey of “the legacy and influence of the mythology and romanticism of the American western frontier”) is staggeringly hackneyed, but thanks to Steinhilber’s works, and those of American Timothy Hursley, the exhibition redeems itself. A super-slick commercial photog who shoots campaigns for Porsche, Steinhilber spends his free time doing fine-art work that exults in elegiac light play. A few years back, he photographed ghost towns such as Bodie, Calif., and Golden Springs, Colo., opting to shoot at dusk with extremely long exposures (up to two hours, for the love of God!), slowly sweeping a handheld, battery-powered headlight over the buildings, rather than blasting them with floodlights. This painstaking, obsessive technique results in a preternatural effect that befits the eerie subject matter and presents a new way to see the normally sun-blanched wooden façades.

In the late 1980s, Hursley photographed the interiors of Nevada’s legal brothels: the Mustang Ranch, the Chicken Ranch and others. These establishments, many of them now boarded up, shared the same fabulously tacky decor: fuchsia velour couches, unironic shag carpeting and wood paneling, and gold-painted chandeliers. There are no people in the photos, although a few partially deflated blowup dolls inhabit the tableaux. What Hursley and Steinhilber are both photographing is the aftermath of fantasy. What they grasp is that no matter how alluring in the heat of lust, any bordello—from the glitzed-up Mustang Ranch to the Great American West itself—becomes a filthy whorehouse the instant after you come. Hope and gold and fairy dust evaporate when destinies manifest, and suddenly you find yourself in a ghost town that used to be a repository for dreams.


SEE IT: Gallery Homeland, 2505 SE 11th Ave., 819-9656. Closes March 2.
 
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