Historians estimate that one in four cowboys was Black, though you’d never know by looking at Western movies. Hollywood and popular culture all but erased Black people from existence in the region. In reality, the American West was settled, farmed, and lived in by both free and enslaved Black people—whether as cowboys, sheriffs, journalists, parents, farmers, or performers.
Photographer Johnnie Chatman has spent almost a decade journeying across the West, capturing himself in its vast landscapes as a reminder that Black people helped shape land that would eventually be stolen. In an interview with Atmos, Chatman explains the importance of these landscapes to Black history.
Tell us about your ongoing project i forgot where we were…
With my continuing series of self-portraits i forgot where we were…, I construct an archive and body of imagery that explores ideas around landscape and that relationship with Black history. This chapter explores the notion of the American West, which has often been defined by binary and reductionist grids of thought and iconography.
As a creator and as someone interested in history and geography, my ultimate goal is to look at how representations and iconography manifest over time and the ripples they create with it.
There’s a real sense of loneliness in these images, but peace in that loneliness. What was your thinking behind this?
I find it interesting when people get a sense of loneliness when they view the work. With the pandemic, our relation to and understanding of loneliness and isolation has shifted. For myself, there was a choice of isolation for the figure, but that does not always mean I was alone when creating the work. The surreal ghostliness of the figure’s repetition allows the subject, in particular a Black body, to become a body of multiplicity and instability.
How and why do you choose the locations for your self-portraits?
By exploring the landscape and interrogating its iconography, I choose sites for various reasons, ranging from personal to objective research and critique. In my research and work, I take notice of locations reiterated throughout the history of photography. Some images may refer to environmental disasters and historical events. In contrast, others may speak to the representations of the landscape in literature and visual culture, whether that be on social media or in film.
What’s the importance of the natural world in this project?
As with the United States and many countries worldwide, no land is free or without politics ingrained into its being. The history of the landscape in art is riddled with these notions. It shapes how and where we can access the land, whose stories are told, which histories are represented, who gets to be there, who has been there, and so on.
What do you hope to achieve throughout the process?
I’ve worked on this project for almost a decade. When I think about why I continue to work on it, I remember statements like this: “Your project is beautiful, but when I think of the West, I think of cowboys and typical American heroes. What does the West have to do with Black people?” During my time working on this project, I’ve heard many statements of this fashion—comments like this show how individuals see history and who belongs in it.
Black individuals have existed in the US since as early as the 1600s and were present through its industrialization. The American West was settled, farmed, and lived in by free and enslaved individuals—whether as cowboys, sheriffs, journalists, parents, settlers, or performers. And yet, their history is a map whose routes have been purposefully forgotten, alongside the stories of Indigenous, Chinese, and Mexican Americans who also inhabited these areas. This selection of images were shot across land that is and has been lived, maintained, loved, and explored by many Indigenous peoples including UTE, Pueblo, Paiute, Jicarilla Apache, Cheyenne, Hopi, Cherokee, and Diné tribes. Instead of their stories and iconography, figures like the lone ranger and John Wayne represent its myth and legacy. It should be noted that the lone ranger is believed to be based on Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy US marshal west of the Mississippi River.
Ultimately, I aim to contribute to the artists who are expanding and critiquing how we relate to the American landscape while bringing attention to the stories that go untold or are intentionally left out of the master narrative of the American West.