Scars and elegance; photographer Anna Ottum discusses the American west
Romanticism, suppression, freedom and the American dream, Anna’s photographic practice looks towards the rodeo.
- Harry Bennett
- 15 April 2020
The personal photographic journey of Anna Ottum began in her 20s, when she spent her days photographing the house she shared with her friends. With the “acute awareness” that she might forget that those days ever happened, she felt it necessary to document that chapter of her life before moving on to New York City, adding that the summer spent in Oregon prior to moving “established my value in fleeting intimacy, the kind of nostalgia and shared experience that is referenced by many artists.” We can see this ephemeral, somewhat sentimental imagery littered throughout her work, ingrained into the celluloid as much as her subjects are.
Anna’s family is also integral to the DNA of her photographic practice. “My father was a black and white landscape photographer,” she tells us, “and would talk to me about tones, shapes and texture.” His visual landscape, she continues, was “the detail of bark on a tree trunk or layers of paint chipping on the side of a building.” In a natural progression from her father’s, Anna’s work has its foundations in colour and warmth, a tenderness that mirrors the nostalgia of her scenes. Her aim is to continue to express the “colourful romanticism of my own experiences” through a relaxed approach, in doing so sharing with the audience “the ease felt as a teenager documenting my youth in Oregon.”
After moving to New York, Anna was swiftly approached for briefs and commissions, leaving her hesitant. She tells us: “I was uncertain of my ability to recreate the same ease that came naturally when photographing friends” but was fortunate to have supportive friends and photo editors that gave her the encouragement to face these assignments with the same candour and ease as she did with her home, establishing “quick connections with subjects.” Through putting herself out of her comfort zone, Anna found something she truly enjoyed, telling us that “these afternoons of getting to know someone in such a short amount of time became a practice I really love and it helped me further my personal work as well.” In turn, this sparked an investigatory, inquisitive spirit within Anna’s practice, in which she hears tell of “a place, a person or interest” during “small conversations” that later become opportunities for exploration.
“I'm drawn to lives lead differently from my own, and much of my interest is in that very human desire to see what we hold in common,” Anna explains. In her quest for characters and stories, what she finds most exciting about the photographic medium is the “search for left of centre individuals and exploration of subjects in a more detailed way.” Expanding on this, Anna explains how this physical and almost journalistic approach to photography provides “more agency than I have naturally to explore a situation or approach an individual I’d like to know more about.” Where Anna finds inspiration, therefore, is, in part, in “seeing what unfolds, how the light changes, how someone behaves in front of the camera”.
The nature of the relationship between subject and photographer is something beautiful and subtle in Anna’s work, and she currently has two on-going projects that explore the American South, specifically rodeo culture and the surrounding sub-cultures and identities found in the region. It began with a shared interest between Anna and her childhood best friend Maia Boboia, Anna’s first photographic muse who she affectionately refers to as her “Romanian cowgirl.” After Maia spent almost a decade in Tel Aviv, she “was enamoured with the American West” and the opportunity arose for Anna to photograph the Pendleton Round-Up – “the largest outdoor rodeo in Oregon.” Re-introducing Anna to the rodeo, she began her research to explore this culture and surrounding sub-cultures. “Like many, I grew up with my own concept of the American West and the people who continue those stories,” she tells us. “My relationship to it is complicated knowing it has deep scars.” Feeling it important to begin with “the father of rodeo circuits,” Anna began with documenting The Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association.
From here the project split in two, one series focusing primarily on women in rodeo, detailing the intersection it shares with “pageantry and grit, historical and present.” The second series “continues as research for the documentation of rodeo subcultures,” considering the complexities of the identity of the American West. We clearly see these complexities in Anna’s work. Almost through rose-tinted glasses, we witness the romance of the land, directly contrasted with the grit and brutality of its reality. Questioning the notion of the American dream and its ingrained ideals of freedom and liberty, as well as the role of masculinity and femininity within these sports.
Becoming a somewhat nomadic photographer, Anna began to spend more time in the south to continue exploring her work. “The work is naturally very voyeuristic,” she explains “as with the rodeo series, there are dualities in the south that I experience as someone who is from the outside looking in.” Fascinated with local events that contribute to the rich and varied history of the area, such as a monster truck show, she continued photographing the “strange, sometimes beautiful and dark ways” that America demonstrates its “complex shared history.” Anna intends on expanding this series, and is planning where to travel next.
Anna also looks to continue a project started by her mother, who passed away when Anna was a child, that began almost 50 years ago in Dexter Oregon, consisting of portraits of the town’s people. “I visited Dexter last summer for the first time to begin my research and met a local who recognised a young boy in one of her portraits,” Anna reminisces. “When I asked her where I could find him she told me, ‘That’s Toody Bug Wagley – the cops are lookin’ for him too.’”
About the Author
After graduating from Winchester School of Art, studying graphic arts, Harry worked as a graphic designer before joining It’s Nice That as an editorial assistant in March 2020. He nows works as a freelance writer and designer, and is one half of Studio Ground Floor.