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Jane Hilton: Dead Eagle Trail

The London-based photographer looks towards a desolate America for inspiration in her latest exhibition at the Host Gallery

Jane Hilton is a photographer and filmmaker based in London but her work is concerned mostly with the United States. Having worked for two decades on her fascination with the weird and wonderful sections of society which seem to only exist in America, her work has lead her to make ten documentary films for the BBC based around two legal brothels in Nevada and the film ‘Forever Starts Now’ about the ‘McDonalds Style’ wedding industry in Las Vegas. Her latest project is a book and exhibition, about cowboys living the life of yore in modern day America. Having been commissioned by The Times to photograph Jeremiah, a cowboy who, at 17 years of age travelled 4,000 miles on horseback from Alaska to Mexico, she was inspired to find out more about this time-honoured way of life and those who lead it. Dazed met with Jane Hilton to speak to her about her fascination with the United States and what is was like to work with and meet real life cowboys.

Dazed Digital: What inspires you about Americana?
Jane Hilton: I don’t know, I think it’s a mixture of things and I think for a lot of people it’s a mixture of things. I mean certainly the cowboys the reason I think I am so locked into their psyche is that I vividly remember growing up in the seventies and watching westerns on television, I always remember Saturday and Sunday afternoons being on the couch with my Dad and my brother and sister and being allowed to watch a two hour film, a western. I don’t know if it was that and it’s the contrast to living in England where it’s quite enclosed and green and you go there and it’s huge and vast and big skies and, the huge desert and it’s that contrast that I was drawn to. When I first went to America it was in 1988,I was an assistant and I lucked out on this job to Tucson Arizona and I think it was that. I’d never been to the states and I landed and my jaw dropped and I just was just speechless. I just thought it was fantastic.

I think it’s reminiscent of the films growing up that were seemingly glamorous and it was kind of evocative of all of that. It’s a wide open space and the cowboy kind of sums it up, for me and the cowboy project I kind of bumped into on the way, I had certain dealings with cowboys over the years and I went hunting with some deer hunters, cowboys and then this popped up and I just thought,  got to do it, there’s more to this. And this cowboy project when it popped up which I say in the text of the book, I was doing other Americana thing and I was diverted by a commission by The Times to photograph a young cowboy called Jeremiah and he had ridden from Alaska to the Mexican border, it had taken over two years. He was seventeen when he started and 19 when he crossed the border, it was an extraordinary story.

DD: So you photographed him?
Jane Hilton: So I met him in Cortez, Colorado where he’s met a girl on his travels and he’d gone back after he’d crossed the border, I photographed him there and while I was photographing him I met old cowboys who were completely in awe of him and thought he was the best thing since sliced bread because he was continuing the dream.  I ended up going to supper with one of them and as soon as I walked into his house I realised there was something special about it. I did his portrait the following day and I said, ‘are you telling me cowboys live like this with houses full of this stuff….’ It was like they had dragged the outside inside, as though they couldn’t be away from it for too long. I then I met a friend through him and I decided to do the project because it was something I had never seen and I thought well, no one else has ever seen it either. The most common photograph of a cowboy is outside, on a horse and that’s how they are always filmed and photographed.

DD: How do you explain your relationship with America?
Jane Hilton: I don’t know really, I’m really drawn towards it, I find it liberating and I suppose most of my work is about culture and it’s a lot about the American dream, I fascinated about the fact that they think they can have it all and maybe that’s what I’m looking for is to have it all and it’s like they certainly have hiccupped over the last few years after 9/11 and the Iraq war and now they are learning hugely but before that they were blissfully ignorant and they just aspired to “you can have a bog house, you can have a swimming pool, you can have a lovely car.’ It was all that kind of wholesome living that Bush advocated.

DD: What about the modern cowboy? Were the men like the myth?
Jane Hilton: Dead Eagle Trail, Host Gallery, 21st April to 1st May.No, I think it’s like the myth, apart from they have cell phones now. Although you can’t get them, because they have no signal, so you can never find one, you can leave them a message and maybe they’ll get back to you in two or three days. But I like that concept anyway and yeah I think it’s quite purist. They understand computers and things like that but they didn’t have any and they just weren’t interested really, which was really nice and refreshing. I think that’s how I felt about the whole thing.

DD: Did you have to persuade them to take part in the project or were they keen get involved?
Jane Hilton: Not really, I mean I had help, Bill would talk to Jeremiah and they would say ‘There’s this little girl from England ‘ they were curious so I think being from another country which they don’t often meet, where they are, they don’t often see travellers so they were quite curious so it worked both ways so that was quite good really.

DD: Did you feel like you were documenting something that was becoming extinct?
Jane Hilton: I did, I felt very privileged and very worried because I though it was so fantastic that it would to horrendous if it disappeared.

DD: Your work explores what some people might call the darker side of American culture.
Jane Hilton: That’s what draws me, is only in America would you see this you wouldn’t see it anywhere else in the world but there. And it’s so leftfield. And that’s what I enjoy about American culture. I like going into all different walks of life, that’s part of the buzz for me, I’m just curious to know why.

Jane Hilton: Dead Eagle Trail, Host Gallery, 21st April to 1st May.