Andrea Gjestvang, Atlantic Cowboy

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by GOST Books (here). Clothbound hardback, 30×22 cm, 144 pages, with 82 images. Includes an illustrated essay by Firouz Gaini, and photographic notes by the author. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: The Faroe Islands are a volcanic chain of scrubby tundra near the Arctic Circle, roughly equidistant between Iceland and Norway. Atlantic Cowboy puts readers in a Faroe mindset from the get go. It’s a steep green book, and doesn’t take long to encounter steep green cliffs. An early photo shows a town at the base of a broad escarpment in Viðoy, the northernmost Faroe island. If it seems an unlikely place for a settlement, the following spread is even more imposing. It closes in on a rocky crag, followed by a shot of gulls and dung splashed across a black precipice. Nature rules the roost here. Point taken.

Beginning in 2014, the Norwegian photographer Andrea Gjestvang spent six years exploring the Faroes over the course of several photo trips. Judging by her notes—several helpfully annotated in the book’s appendix—she traveled widely, sampling several of the 18 islands and their various communities. “I often drove around aimlessly,” she writes. “If I saw people at the harbor I would stop the car.”

That method would not have worked so well had she not also possessed the useful knack for ingratiating herself into the private lives of strangers. Her work mixes portraits, job sites, social settings, and natural scenery with evenhanded candor. If its reach is broad, her initial plan was narrower: “to document the impact of a shortage of women on the territory.” She succeeded on that count—the book is almost entirely comprised of men—but gender was only one facet. Atlantic Cowboy peels back the Faroe onion to reveal many layers. It follows well worn photo tradition: a photographer travels to a distant place, immerses as best they can, and compiles a visual record. Ideally the world’s understanding is enriched by the photos, aesthetic boundaries are pushed, and maybe personal ones too.

That was roughly the case with Gjestvang. But before addressing her discoveries, some background is helpful. The Faroes were first settled circa 700. After a period of Norwegian control, they later became part of Denmark as a self-governing province. The landscape is barren and treeless. It has always been a tough place to scratch out a living, and Denmark did not do much to encourage development. Most inhabitants have made their livelihoods from land and sea. Birds, fish, whales, and sheep (Faroes = “sheep islands”) have all provided sustenance over the centuries. The resource-based economy underwent a severe depression in the 1990s. It has since bounced back, and remains primarily resource based. For young islanders with alternative ambitions—a group disproportionately female— there are not many prospects. According to Gjestvang, “young women are drawn abroad for study or training. More than half of those who leave never return.” The island population of about 54,000 has a gender deficit of 2,000.

Enter the Atlantic Cowboy. The titular figure comes originally from a 1997 Swedish film. It was later popularized in a 2007 essay “Once Were Men” by Firouz Gaini. Gaini envisioned the Atlantic Cowboy as a reactionary dullard, associated with “fast cars, rock music, fishing, as well as traditional family values and Christian Faith…The young man did what had to be done and what his father’s father also had done before him.” He paraphrases an author’s conception of the AC as a star-crossed blend of Tarzan, Cowboy, and Donald Duck. Meanwhile, his imagined nemesis was “the Urban (European) youth” bearing “alternative gender values and cultural identifies.” Yikes, circle the wagons!

At least that was Gaini’s assessment in 2007. We needn’t look far for an update since Gjestvang commissioned Gaini to write Atlantic Cowboy’s introduction. “Is the Atlantic Cowboy still among us in the Faroes”, he asks? The short answer is yes, but his influence is fading, and you may have to search a bit harder to find him now.

That doesn’t seem to have fazed Gjestvang. Her photos are spiced with machismo. One shows men resting in a bloody bay after wrestling a whale into submission. Another frame captures a greasy workspace livened with swimsuit pinups. Several well-seen portraits capture males in a state of post-labor bliss, perhaps smoking a cigarette or caressing a treasured hook or shears. A double spread of two men unwinding in a hot tub hovers between sensuality and bravado, while yet another subject muscles against a tight fitting t-shirt. His chest is spattered with gore under rubber overalls. Other photos depict bloody hands, bloody boots, and bloody harvests.

By the looks of it these Atlantic Cowboys have been busy conquering nature. Gjestvang drives the point home with multiple takes of the surrounding landscape. The scenery is dramatic enough on its own, a mix of waves, scrub, and sharp relief. Gjestvang amplifies the intensity with occasional long lens compression and golden hour lighting. Season with mist, snow, ocean spray, and moody skies, and the Faroes are anthropomorphized into yet another adversary. This is a place where people live off the land, and it’s not always extracted willingly.

Virile males vanquishing nature. This is familiar territory for photographers, broached by, e.g., Darius Kinsey (reviewed here), Sebastião Salgado (reviewed here), Eirik Johnson (reviewed here) and, if we stretch a bit, Edward Burtynsky (reviewed here). Among recent books, Inuutech Storch’s Keepers Of The Ocean (reviewed here) explores a similar theme in a provincial setting, although his was the snug perspective of an insider.

As probing as these projects were, Gjestvang offers a view that which was inaccessible to all of them, the female gaze. She observes Atlantic Cowboys with fascination, and a hint of cool familiarity. This isn’t her first brush with male malaise. “As I drove through the endless landscape,” Gjestvang describes one distant green valley, “I thought back to my own childhood and youth on a large farm in the heartland of Eastern Norway. Surrounded by silent men.”

If the Atlantic Cowboy rubric seems particularly apt for the Faroes, it turns out this book is not their first rodeo. Gaini’s essay is illustrated with excerpts from a 1930 National Geographic exposé on the Faroes. The old monochrome photos show untamed coasts and quaintly costumed villagers. “Rugged living diminishes not a whit the norse beauty of the Faroese women,” explains one caption.

Women are not completely absent from Atlantic Cowboy, but they appear in just a few pictures, and only once as primary subject. An elderly couple talks over tea in one photo, while several others show social crowds of mixed age and gender. One frame even manages to capture children playing on an amusement structure. Solitary cowboys be damned, there’s hope for the future yet. Still, one can’t shake the feeling that all these inhabitants are temporary, and that land and sea will outlast silly humans.

The focus on men is merely one of Gjestvang’s filters. In recent years tourism has become a growing component of the Faroe economy, The tragedy of the commons has even forced trail closures on selected days to help mitigate the impact of travelers. It might well be a growing problem, but it’s been weeded from the book.

Such is a photographer’s prerogative, and that’s fine. One must pick and choose what to feature and how. Gjestvang’s take on the Faroes follows roughly in the mold of a National Geographic profile. We drop in for a while on a distant land and its inhabitants, get a taste of daily life, and a flurry of well-made photographs in gorgeous lighting. Our cultural understanding expands, while the world gets ever so slightly smaller. If only Atlantic Cowboys were so malleable.

Collector’s POV: Andrea Gjestvang does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time, though her editorial assignments are represented by Panos Pictures (here). As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar.)

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