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Wednesday, September 11, 2013

With the Sun at Your Back

The arid heat of the setting sun wafts across the seemingly endless desert canyon. A lone cowboy, riding on horseback, can be spotted off in the distance. It is a striking, unmistakable image that burns itself into your mind with an intensity greater than the sinking sun before you. The man and his horse look like living shadows off in the distance; no detail can be made out, but their outline is powerful. The raw power of the imagery is a result of stripping away all of the excess details, leaving only the purest form of a powerful American image; a western silhouette.

Western silhouettes are depictions of "old west" themes and motifs. We all know what the west is - cowboys, horses, and a shootout at high noon - but what's a silhouette? Picture your own shadow put up on a wall, it would be "you" without any details. That's a silhouette; an outline of recognizable forms with their details stripped away due to the lighting. This effect can dramatically alter the power of a picture from being a moment captured in time to a work of art. Many of the finest silhouette pieces capture powerful emotions better than a fully exposed camera shot ever could.

Imagine a wild horse bucking while a determined wrangler - broad-brimmed hat on his head, long leather hide boots on his feet - attempts to tame it. Dust kicks up as the majestic beast rears up onto its hindquarters in an attempt to assert his dominance. The sun is at his back, a cactus is nearby. What do you picture? You picture a powerful image that only the west could elicit and you picture it with few details. Western silhouettes are more than just a reminder of our roots, they stir us at our core and inspire adventure. They are thrilling in a way that many other artistic and photographic mediums struggle to capture.

Imagine a wide-shot of an old west town. The bar with rooms to rent upstairs, the bank, the sheriff's department, all laid out in the background. Townsfolk gather in hushed tones, cowering at the scene unfolding before them. It's - you guessed it - high noon. Two men stand at the edges of the framed scene; despite not seeing anything but their outlines you know their eyes are tunneled in on one another. Guns are drawn with outstretched arms zeroing in on one another; someone's not walking away from this one. The image is so powerful you find your mind racing as wild as a mustang while the unavoidable question greets you like the first shot of the draw: "Who's it gonna be?"

The intensity of this scene is exacerbated by the fact the main subjects are silhouetted, causing us to focus solely on the raw human drama that is unfolding, and not allowing any of our prejudices to interfere with the details. This is the power of the western silhouette.     


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