San Francisco

Susan Felter

Camerawork Gallery

In photographs made at western rodeos, Susan Felter displays a sure instinct for the mythic and erotic overtones of this American ritual. She photographs surface illusion, straight-faced macho cowboys in pink satin shirts and two toned leather chaps, and the kinetic colors and shapes of bronco riding. Her vision is in harmony with both the cowboys, who desire to project a ruggedly virile image, and the rodeo entrepreneurs, who fabricate spectacles.

The photographs are divided almost evenly between portraits, some of them posed, others frozen with strobe in mid-action, and movement studies, abstract in their use of form, but objective enough to allow for coherent reading. The portraits can almost be viewed as parodies of tobacco advertisements, the Marlboro man stripped of his ubiquitous cigarette. Felter’s sitters are archetypal, direct and often ironically situated against luminous night skies. Strobe illumination yields rich, saturated hues, and accentuates foreground/background distance, creating a spatial distortion that seems painterly. In several of the pictures the strobe throws a shadow of a mid-swing lasso against the sky, further maximizing this delineation. Collaboration between photographer and subject is evident here, as the cowboys attempt their version of celebrity status, while simultaneously acting out for a woman photographer.

In the action shots Felter conveys an intense energy by focusing on the clenched jaw, the tautly-gripped rein or saddle horn, and the flexed thigh pressed against the flank. These are beautiful, fragmentary impressions of color and form that vibrate with a masculine frenzy. The photographs are also blatantly sexual, as Felter repeatedly directs her camera at her subjects bulging crotches. One image of wildly gyrating cowboys at a dance is particularly reminiscent of Thomas Hart Benton’s elongated American figures.

Felter’s manipulation of rich, unsubtle hues in an almost posterboard visage, combined with her erotic sensibility, demonstrates a skillful transference of mass media strategies to the personal photograph. In contrast to the multitude of photographers who have readily yet unpurposefully embraced color technology, Felter has developed both a form and a content that applies it to an expressive and logical end.

While Felter investigates the surface (readily comprehensible experiences of the rodeo), her elegant and technically accomplished pictures transcend superficial description. The photographer not only describes an American ritual very much through its own symbols, but she makes note of (and apparently enjoys) its sexual overtones. Nonetheless, Felter has not tarnished the American cowboy aura, but has rather, by visualizing her response to these male/female encounters, made more visible the inference beneath the surface of the icon.

Hal Fischer