Big Skies, Small Communities: Photographer Lucas Foglia recounts stories from the Wild West


9 June 2015


Between 2006 and 2013, Lucas Foglia travelled with a van, a mattress and his camera through the American South. At the beginning of his trip, he immersed himself in the lives of people living in remote, alternative communities and this became a collection of photographs entitled A Natural Order. At the end of his travels, he published Frontcountry, a series focusing on small communities living in the midst of a mining and energy boom. In both collections the photographs are intensely personal, offering a close-up look at people who usually keep themselves to themselves. They radiate a sense of secrecy, spirit and adventure, reflecting his odyssey deep into the ageless backcountry of Idaho, Montana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas and Wyoming.

Lucas’ story begins on a farm in upstate New York, surrounded by monotonous suburbs and a metallic crown of industrialisation rising over the idyllic fields. He grew up in a place that was both urban and rustic, a space containing signs of America’s two most iconic landscapes – the ancient wild and the newly modern. His mother is a folklorist, and would tell her son the stories she had gathered through the years; stories about the vast, sprawling United States and the different people who live there.

“My favourite of my mother’s stories were open-ended. The kind of folk tales that just end… and you don’t quite know if you want to be happy or sad. You want to hear them again, just to get towards whichever emotion it is.”

Lucas explains his work through metaphor and anecdote, as a combination of geography and memory. “Narrative in a single photograph is open-ended. At best there is a sense of something that happened before, something that is happening at the moment of the picture, and something that is about to happen,” he explains.

He strives to capture what he describes as the “extraordinary moments” embedded in the larger, practical story of everyday life in the endless American West. To do this he immerses himself in the tight, insular communities that he documents in order to capture these fleeting moments.

“I like spending time in the places I photograph, and then finding things that feel extraordinary, that come out of the everyday experience of being somewhere. When I first started travelling, one of the farmers I visited said that for the first day I was a guest, and then after that I was free labour. That allowed me to see things as they were happening around me, to participate, and then find moments that felt like they were significant.”

Lucas’ work is like that of a travelling storyteller, but instead of sharing stories with those he meets and moving on, he becomes a part of their story too. He joins in with their lives, earning their trust in exchange for his images. “In Afton, Wyoming I once helped to take apart a cow for the first time in my life. I tried to take photographs as we were doing it but the image that stayed from the experience was the image of the cow looking at me before it was shot. The eye contact felt most memorable, more than the body once it was killed.”


Soccer Practice

Lucas is constantly looking for this eye contact, and his subjects become guides who open up their world for him and point to where he might go next. “I go to places that are recommended by people I know. I follow stories that are passed along by friends.” Looking through his books, the individual photographs are linked by a web of unseen connections; they’re spun by hearsay, the product of local legends. His photographs contain the esoteric, shadowy essence of folklore and the matter-of-fact details of handed-down traditions, but rather than preserving oral history through words, he records and creates a visual one. His pictures honour and embellish the stories, settings and people he finds.

This is particularly clear in a photograph showing a group of boys playing American football against the backdrop of a snow-capped mountain range. “I met some local ranchers,” he says, “and through them I met other families. Their kids went to high school and started sports when the ground was still covered in snow in the spring.

“I visited their high school a number of times while staying with families in the area. I’d go watch practice. It was a time when everyone was outside, even in weather that harsh. In small communities, sports are more than a competition. They’re a way for people to get together, a way for community to build. Some of those kids have to get on a bus and travel over an hour to get home but they stay to play sports every day, it’s their time to socialise. By socialising, they are outside with the backdrop of that landscape.”



The landscape is part of what makes the photograph so sublime, and is heightened when contrasted with the shocking, synthetic green, red and yellow of the football field. There is a majesty emanating from those distant peaks, one that seems to rub off on the huddle of players gazing purposefully towards the ball, connected but apart from their surroundings. It captures a community and a lifestyle that finds its home within the tireless American landscape, much of it still untamed. It’s an idea we often forget, but it’s at the heart of Frontcountry.

I ask about the role of landscape in his work, and Lucas answers with another story. He’s off on the next journey, always on the move in search of the stillness his photos exude. “When I started driving across Wyoming on my first trip, I looked out at the high desert and realised that if my car broke down and I walked off, I would disappear in that landscape and no one would find me. It was a scary feeling. About a half hour later, my car ran out of gas. I was on the side of the road, thinking about what I’d just thought about, not really knowing what to do. Within about 20 minutes, another car drove by. He stopped and had a five gallon tank of gas in the back. He gave me the extra gas, just enough to get to town, and I went on my way.




Casey And Rowdy Horse Training

“I realised that people move to this landscape for the isolation. Someone who lives there has to want that isolation, otherwise it’s a hard place to be. At the same time, the communities are tight-knit. People tend to know each other, they recognise each other by the cars they drive when they’re just dots at the end of the road. I don’t think of Frontcountry as a project about people who are alone. They are isolated without being alone. Big skies but small communities.”

Frontcountry is filled with portraits of sturdy individuals standing in the midst of magnificent backdrops, ranging from yellow cornfields in Nevada to treacherous peaks in Idaho. No matter how isolating the landscape there is a sense of home that resonates from the shots, a sense of people living in and belonging to a place however alien or farfetched.

The series begins with images of cowboys on their ranches; stereotypical men comfortable in familiar sandy-coloured backdrops, dusty, desolate, near mystical settings made famous by Western movies and epic American legend. The book ends with photographs of modern miners; images that are not so well-known and less iconic, moving the viewer from recognisable American scenes to moments that might surprise them. It’s another, less mythological and less exposed America, but still America. “When I first went to the American West, I’d imagined clear stories. Stories about cowboys and ghost towns. A story about a space that was totally wild. What I encountered was a boom in mining and energy development: gold, copper, coal, oil, natural gas, solar and wind.” Frontcountry both defies and confirms expectations, and mirrors Lucas’ own experience as America keeps revealing itself to him as something changing and changeless.

One of the many new things that Lucas discovered on his travels was the important role the mining industry now plays in supporting local communities. “Mining builds the towns that people live in,” he explains. The mines own the land on which cowboys graze their cattle, as well as the water for the grass. Ranching and mining are therefore connected, the former reliant on the latter. In placing ranching and mining at opposite ends of the book, Frontcountry not only follows connections between people and communities, passing through the very heart of American history, but also the connections between industries and livelihoods.


Thomas And Kimberly Swimming

The unsustainable nature of mining, and the dire effect that this has on communities that economically rely on the industry, is an enduring reality that resonates throughout. “Mined materials are valuable because they are limited,” says Lucas. “Once they run out, the mine closes, and once the mine closes, people leave. Then the town is gone. Because the American West’s landscape is famous for being wild, and because a Wild West is part of our American story, for me one of the core questions in the book is how we should use the spent land that’s left behind?”

Lucas does not answer this difficult question, and like all great storytellers – like his mother – he leaves things open. Those that contemplate his photographs are left to imagine what happens next; uncommon stories emerge out of the ones we already know.

When Lucas is on his travels he’ll often find new stories and youthful energies he wasn’t expecting. New sights emerge from unexpected places. In Wyoming, he discovered a uranium mining town that had boomed during the Cold War, but became a ghost town once the mines were emptied. “Everybody left, and they took the houses with them,” he recalls. “If you drive into the town, there are these cement foundations with little steps in the front of each one of the empty lots. Just little grey squares on the landscape.”

Intrigued, he went to photograph the town, but didn’t end up using any of the images. “The story of them felt better than the image looked. I didn’t know what to do, but then I saw a pick-up truck drive by on a dirt road. I started following it, because there were some teenagers in the back holding guns.


Moving Cattle To Spring Pasture

“Then the car stopped and the kids jumped off and walked back to my van. They said they were going to have a picnic. I asked them if I could come and they agreed. The picture I have from the book is of Thomas and Kimberly swimming. Thomas is holding his little sister over his head, and pulling her out of the water. That image stuck with me more than the steps leading to nowhere. It felt more alive.”

In this freewheeling fashion Lucas’ photographs seek fresh connections and contexts and a sense of memories and past life being renewed, not fading away. He locates exceptional unprocessed moments in everyday life, and filters those moments through a landscape steeped in folklore and legend. The work seems inextricably connected to the beat, drama and scale of America and the land itself. As our interview draws to an end, I ask whether he’ll ever venture beyond the United States, if he’ll search for new stories in new destinations and look for other myths and people outside his homeland.

“For me, there has to be something in each project I do that feels personal,” he says. “Then I need to be able to make photographs that feel compelling. So far I’ve photographed in the United States because it is a place that I know. I think if a story came along that brought me somewhere else, if it felt personal, I could definitely photograph there.”


Coal Storage

Share Article

Further Info

About the Author

Madeleine Morley

It's Nice That Newsletters

Fancy a bit of It's Nice That in your inbox? Sign up to our newsletters and we'll keep you in the loop with everything good going on in the creative world.