nancy newberry’s surreal photographs of texas cheerleaders and cowboys
For her latest project, “Smoke Bombs and Border Crossings,” photographer Nancy Newberry staged a contemporary Spaghetti Western across the U.S.-Mexico border. She talks to i-D about documenting rodeos and her lifelong exploration of her home state.
Nancy Newberry grew up in Texas — "you can just say, 'around Texas,' that's easier" — in a military family. Her father was in the Air Force and later a commercial pilot, which goes a long way towards explaining her fascination with uniforms and regalia. That and her Catholic upbringing.
Today, she travels between Dallas and Marfa, and splits her work between editorial photography and personal projects, all of which inhabit the same Southern landscapes she does. Her three most recent series — "Mum," "Halfway to Midland," and "Smoke Bombs and Border Crossings" — form a loose Texas trilogy. While each is a clear distillation of a separate theme or place, together they create a complete mythology of personal memories and Texan archetypes.
The three series are connected by Nancy's autobiography, too. "All came after experiencing real tragedies," she explains. Most recently, she began working on "Smoke Bombs" after the death of her mother. "I was taking a break from photography and had suddenly started making flags on my mom's sewing machine," she remembers, "I had had an idea to make my own Spaghetti Western a while before, but hadn't thought about what that meant." During her flag-making, she began to consider the significance of flags as nationalist symbols, her Texas upbringing, her mother's Italian heritage, and how Sergio Leone's Italian Western films of the 60s had appropriated Western mythologies.
"I have long been interested in the American archetype, the Wild West, and how its iconic self-image is re-interpreted in the U.S. and by other cultures," she writes in the artist statement for the project, "Simply telling people I am from Texas begins a discourse laced with stereotypes made famous by the genre."
For the series, Nancy photographed three groups of characters in scenes that straddle the boundary between documentary and staged photography. She talks about each group like a set of extras in a movie or a gang of kids in a backyard game: there are American cowboys, Mexican charros, and soldiers. The charros she shot (and is still shooting) at rodeos in Ciudad Juarez and other Mexican border towns, dressed in the ceremonial silk cravats, suede boots, and embroidered riding pants of traditional ranchers on special occasions. Other images — of young people in frogged military uniforms readying themselves for battle — are fictions she cast and arranged more like a film director. The three groups "become suspended in a playful sense of preparedness at the Texas-Mexico Border," she explains. They also become stand-ins for a wider conversation about nationalism, immigration, and cultural identity that is especially acute in 2017.
Nancy calls "Smoke Bombs" a "survey of my own backyard." "When you live in a geographical area with blended nationalities, you're in dialog with people across the border all the time. And we're in a constant state of change right now," she explains. Many of the U.S. scenes were photographed near her home in the countryside around Marfa, and in Dallas and El Paso.
Her previous series "Halfway to Midland" also occupies a specific area of her personal geography. The town of Midland sits almost dead center between Dallas and Marfa, representing the middle of both Texas and her individual universe. The series has a looser narrative thread than the more choreographed scenes of "Smoke Bombs." A cheerleader sits bolt upright against a playhouse, a young girl lies on a house roof at night, horses are a recurring motif — on kitschy wallpaper, as funny plastic statues. The images are made more dreamlike still by Nancy's use of strong shadows, which sometimes obscure subjects' faces or separate them from their surroundings. Fences and walls are another theme, often placing figures at a remove from the viewer.
"I feel detached from all my subjects, to an extent," says Nancy. While she often photographs young people in scenarios she once enacted herself as a Texan teen, she is more interested in archetypes and cultural rituals than individual stories. "It's not really me reliving anything, it's more of a humorous exploration."
"Mum," shot between 2009 and 2013, is in some ways Nancy's most directly autobiographical project. In 2009, while recovering from a car accident (in which she broke both of her hands), she returned to her childhood home and discovered a box of her teenage belongings in the attic. It contained notes ("you know, the notes you used to pass in class, which I guess is just done through texting now"), award ribbons, and mums. Mums are decorative rosettes worn by high school girls at Texas homecoming events. "When I was a kid, they were made with real flowers," explains Nancy. "Since then, they've become these giant creations." (They can incorporate everything from stuffed animals to LED lights and iPods.) The box inspired Nancy to explore the continued significance of mums and high school regalia — and, through that, "social groups in general and how important it is to belong as a young person."
"I focused on groups I had some kind of relationship with when I was their age," she says of the resulting images. She photographed dancers, gymnasts, cheerleaders, and band captains all adorned with giant, ribbon-trailing mums. In one image, the mum is so massive that it engulfs the entire torso of a leaping baton twirler who is suspended mid-leap, her white-booted legs paralleling the Texas skyline. In another, a girl in a gymnast's uniform back-bends off a settee. "I used to do gymnastics off the couch, and my mother would yell at me, so I said, 'Ok, can we try this,'" Nancy remembers of directing her subject. The images blend her story with the lives of her models in a way that highlights instead the timeless strangeness of Texan teen rituals.
While "Smoke Bombs" is still a work in progress it feels like both an extension and conclusion of the two earlier projects. In April, Nancy traveled to the South of France, to showcase the project at the Hyères International Festival of Fashion and Photography; she had been shortlisted for the Photography Jury Grand Prix.
Now that she's back in Texas, I ask her if the series does feel like the rounding out of a trilogy. "It's funny, I always had this conceptual idea of making a Texas trilogy. I'm not sure if this is my Texas trilogy, but it might be," she says. "[Texas] is a really interesting place. It's a place always in conflict, in a way. There are a career's worth of complications to address. As long as I'm living in Texas, there'll be material to work with."
Text Alice Newell-Hanson
Photography Nancy Newberry