It’s hard to believe Sam Contis’s book, Deep Springs depicts a real place. Images of dust blowing across a desert at the foot of craggy mountains alternate with images of beautiful young men doing manly things like shoeing horses, shearing sheep and branding steer. There are also quiet, delicate images: a hand holding a basket of eggs, the exposed neck of a young man with his chin turned up. The lack of text adds to the mystery. It’s imaginable that Contis hired male models to portray some kind of Western myth. According to MACK, the book’s publisher, Deep Springs is indeed real. It’s a two-year college in eastern California that was founded in 1917 by L.L. Nunn, a mining and utility tycoon who believed education should foster self-reliance and service to humanity. It remains the only all-male college in the U.S. Contis, a Yale MFA grad and winner of a Tierney Fellowship and an Aaron Siskind Foundation grant, uses the small Deep Springs community to explore ideas about masculinity, youth and the American west.
According to its website, Deep Springs College admits only 14 or 15 students per year. Students receive free tuition, room and board. In addition to their courses and independent study, they are required to work 20 hours a week on the campus ranch, or in the dairy, garden, boarding houses, office or machine shop. Contis shows the isolation of the school in photos of the desert landscape and the mountain range on the horizon. She includes one photo of a student reading a book, but her focus is on the students’ manual labor or their rustic life: clothes hanging on the line outside a cabin, for example. Many of the students are shown either in the flannel shirts and workpants of traditional cowboys, or they’re in some state of undress. Many photos of the students are very tight: We see the dirt-flecked shoulder blade of a boy who’s been lying on the ground, and a hand holding a knife to sheep fleece. One closeup of a torso looks like a portion of a Greek statue. In other photos, she gazes down on them, so we see only the tops of the cowboy hats on two boys who are on their knees in the dirt; whether they’re hunting for something or getting ready to wrestle is unclear.
In nearly all the photos, faces are obscured or just outside the frame, so the subjects lose their individual identity. The exceptions, however, are striking. Contis includes just three full-body portraits in the book, and they show young men who stand out from the rest of the cowboy-gear-wearing students. One, for example, wears a powder-blue suit. The other, a young man with a head of soft curly hair, sits languidly under an arbor. Another photo shows a laughing, naked boy slightly covered by his towel. This is college, after all: It’s a place where the young try out new personalities and exert their individuality through dress and attitude.
The school is a throwback to a time of utopian idealism about education and living off the land. Contis emphasizes the sense of timelessness by including some yellowed, spotted photos that appear to be pulled from an old photo album, but the subjects in the photos could have been photographed yesterday. Deep Springs is a puzzle, but it’s also alluring in its celebration of human and natural beauty. Like the college it depicts, the book appeals to a craving for a simpler time. —Holly Stuart Hughes
On May 31, Sam Contis will discuss the book with Shoair Mavlin, Assistant Curator at Tate Modern, at TANK Magazine in London.