I don’t know how I fell in love so deeply with the American West. A Latin expression comes to my mind: nomen omen. Romans believed one’s name could hint to the person’s destiny, and my parents did chose Wayne as my middle name. You could also say that the Romans got it upside down, and it’s one’s name that actually imprints their fate. No matter how you see it, the love of the West is inscribed in my name.
Fun fact, the etymology of Wayne is bound to the Westward movement and traces back to the wainwright, the wagon-builder (“wain” being the archaic word for the wagon, or the stagecoach).
Western movies have surely played a major role in my fondness of the West, and my western photography is imbued with a cinematic taste.
As I recently watched John Ford’s 1939 movie “Stagecoach”, I was elated to discover a sequence very similar to a photograph I shot in the monument valley, featuring the first butte one encounters upon leaving Kayenta, the gatekeeper to the Monument Valley.
Being born and raised in Italy, my Western imagery somewhat reflects the Old Continent’s fascination with the Old West. On the one hand, I partake of John Ford’s visions of grandeur, as I look to represent the awe-inspiring vistas reminiscent of National Geographic; on the other hand, I am influenced by Sergio Leone’s realism as I paint the Western deserts in all of their barren and blinding inhospitable beauty.
We sometimes describe the Western deserts as Martian, or Lunar landscapes. The difference, though, is that life abounds in the desert. One of the reasons why I find the desert so inspiring, in fact, is the relevance of life. Nothing lives by chance in the desert, every life form sings and celebrates its own relevance.
Living in Los Angeles, I am blessed with a unique access to the American West. On top of being, quite literally, the end of the trail, I can drive three hours and be in one of my favorite places in the world, Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. I can also drive little more than half a day and reach the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, and the countless wonders of Nevada, Utah, and Arizona.
This is a blessing I am aware of every day. The West is my backyard. I can access it with such ease that I do not even need to think about it. Yet, the American West retains the wonder of a legendary past, certainly romanticized, but whose epic narration had begun even before the Census Bureau declared the closure of the Western frontier in 1890. Every so often, a zealous mind sets on to seek the “real” West, the reality of the Westward movement. Even before Hollywood, the Westward movement could hardly discern itself from its own self-narrative and ideology.
Then Hollywood came, and the rest is history: still, never before in history a given space-time was narrated and mythicized so close to its very unraveling, chronologically and geographically. John Wayne did meet Wyatt Earp, the deputy marshal of Tombstone, and when the latter died in 1929 in Los Angeles, western movie star Tom Mix was among the pallbearers.
If someone can take all of these elements apart, I tip my hat to them. I cannot. The nineteenth century, the Western movies on which Hollywood was born, Kerouac and McCarthy, my 2011 Silver Mustang and the sensors of my digital cameras, all of these things come together in my eyes and in my mind. I go out there, and look where the geological history and the histories of our people fold and bend like the Colorado river.
Countless towns in the South Western states claim to be “where the West still lives”. If you’re looking for me and I’m not in Los Angeles, I’m probably somewhere out there.
Tom Wayne Bertolotti, W.S.P.*
You can see a selection of my Western photographs on the website Visions of the American West.
*W.S.P. stands for Western Standard Photographer and it is an acronym I molded on Chet Atkins’ C.G.P. (Country Guitar Picker)