CDS exhibit challenges traditional notions of the cowboy

"Father and Son," (Cecilia, LA) 2015. "Louisiana Trail Riders" is on display at the Center for Documentary Studies until Sept. 22.
"Father and Son," (Cecilia, LA) 2015. "Louisiana Trail Riders" is on display at the Center for Documentary Studies until Sept. 22.

I didn’t grow up with cowboys. I believed they were already long dead. I haven’t seen “Gunsmoke,” “The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly” or “The Virginian,” films that come out of an era so time-worn that the smoke has long cleared. Cowboys were not a fixture of my childhood afternoons, when imagination and historical mythicality coalesce into something both trivial and all-consuming. I gave them no thought, at least until last week when I saw Jeremiah Ariaz’s exhibit “Louisiana Trail Riders” at the Center for Documentary Studies. My childhood history was more recent, more tangible, and the cowboy/Indian duality was too wrought with flattened racism even for my 9-year-old brain. 

My conception of the cowboy was that of a dying one. It was a myth that could not be chased, a path that was no longer sustainable in a modernizing world. My lasting impression of the cowboy is rooted in Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses”, an assigned high school reading that I both cherished and read voraciously. There is no sanctuary to be found in running from time, McCarthy seemed to be saying. Even the noblest, the toughest, the whitest, and the hardiest of cowboys will find their end. The myth of the cowboy as we know it was buried decades ago. 

But can that myth be repackaged, repurposed? Is it even a myth at all? “Louisiana Trail Riders” suggests that no, it’s not. The collection documents the black Creole cowboys of southern Louisiana, who diligently maintain, honor and celebrate their heritage through weekly trail rides in which they traverse the main streets of their local towns on horseback. The trail riding clubs are centerpieces of their Creole communities, serving to purvey tradition and reinforce shared historical narrative through community-service trail ride events. 

Certainly, Ariaz’s exhibit challenges the cultural association between whiteness and the mythical cowboy. However, such a stripped down analysis fails to capture the historical and cultural implications of the modern black cowboy, which defy our own limiting conceptions of what can and cannot be deemed history and packaged as myth.

In constructing the collection, Ariaz was intimately concerned with documenting time, rooting each photograph in a specific time and place. In one particularly poignant shot, he captures a group of horses and riders entirely within the frame of a car door window. In another photograph, horses and their riders march past an auto shop, tires delicately stacked along the bottom half of the frame. This isn’t nostalgia. This is here and now, and it’s on purpose.

“I wanted to make clear in the photographs that what a viewer was seeing was in the here and now, that it is part of our contemporary experience,” Ariaz said. “Some of the things that other photographers might choose to exclude from the photographs in order for it to be more timeless, I wanted to include as a type of timestamp to indicate when the photograph is made.” 

Nonetheless, the close attention that Ariaz pays to time is in some ways redundant. The incongruity – or at least what we merely interpret as incongruity – between past and present is implicit and inherent to the photographs. Adult riders wear t-shirts, jeans and sneakers, though some prefer a pair of traditional cowboy boots. Teenagers push the historical grounding a step further, sporting beanies, sunglasses and jeans hanging low on the hips. In one photograph, a stoic young woman wears both big hoop earrings and a belt with an imposing, bulbous silver belt buckle. The earrings and buckle merge, held alongside one another on her steadfast frame.

After the civil rights and Black Power movements, Creole communities adopted the African-American label and some of the cultural characteristics that came along with that more encompassing identification. For example, the traditional zydeco music that bookends trail rides is increasingly infused with hip hop and reggae influences. During these rides, DJs sit atop wagons at the front of the procession, sewing together the soundtrack of the parade on their sound systems.  

“I don’t think it’s possible for anything to exist in the world without being influenced by the life and time that we are in,” Ariaz noted. “Therefore, I think those changes [in trail riding culture] are inevitable. I think in the photographs, you see both generations coming together, sharing an experience, and I hope that neither the younger nor the older generation feels that they don’t belong on the trail rides. Every generation is going to make their activities their own.”

The multi-generational comparisons, the contrast between “past” and present is even evident in the interaction between rider and horse, between human and animal. The horse is not a mere show animal; throughout Creole history, horses have been a fixture of quotidian experience on the ranch or the farm. They were a livelihood, and they maintain their prominence even as they meld into tradition. In the exhibit, we see riders carefully and diligently caress, brush, and feed their horses. In one image, horse and rider seem to become one as the rider’s head obscures that of the horse. This connection between human and beast is so rare and unfamiliar that it feels raw, almost archaic. But it’s not. Here the rider stands before us, a product of modern time, wearing a beanie and white t-shirt. 

The blending of past and present that is evident in trail-riding culture seems to suggest that there is really no past at all, at least in the face of mythicality. We deem something “of the past” and delegate it to history simply because its paradigm case – the John Wayne cowboy – no longer exists.

But the mythical cowboy is not long-gone and impertinent to present-day and thus our attention. It is simply reborn, relived, and recreated (rather, it has always been born, lived and created) in the culture and acts of those we have not thought to consider, and not realizing that that is the case robs us of our present and the lessons we may learn from it. The decision to make the cowboy a myth is our own. Perhaps myths never die; rather, we kill them with our own rigidity. The cowboy does, and should, live on.

“Louisiana Trail Riders” is on exhibit at the Center for Documentary Studies until Sept. 22. Ariaz’s book of the same name, published under UL Press, is available now. 


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