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Boom and bust in the American West

Not too long ago, Lucas Foglia found himself witnessing a killing.

He watched as Wyoming schoolteacher Adam Isaacson aimed a rifle at the soon-to-be victim — a cow ready for slaughter. Foglia pointed his camera at both of them.

Just before Isaacson pulled the trigger, Foglia triggered his shutter. “The sound of my camera made the cow look at me,” Foglia recalled.

He snapped another photo, and a split second later Isaacson fired his weapon.

The cow was dead.

“That moment of eye contact felt the most memorable,” Foglia said.

Foglia’s Nazraeli Press book “Frontcountry” offers a photographic perspective on the American West, birthplace of so much of the nation’s iconic mythology. But instead of finding cowboys, ghost towns and wilderness as he expected, Foglia found ranchers, boomtowns and mining companies.

The book documents a kind of ongoing dialogue between two sometimes competing lifestyles: ranching and mining.

The first, Foglia explains, is connected to the land. The other is based on extraction from the land. At age 31, with two books under his belt, Foglia tends to gravitate toward dynamic, culturally relevant, location-based projects.

“I think the world is more complicated than the situations I can imagine in my head,” Foglia told CNN this week by phone from his family farm on Long Island, New York.

One of the book’s more memorable images shows Nevada rancher Tommy Stowell performing a balancing act on a fence post while holding a loaded rifle.

The story behind the photo goes like this: After Foglia and Stowell got to know each other a little, Stowell offered to show Foglia how to shoot a coyote while standing on top of a fence pole.

“He climbed up on top of the pole with his gun. And then he fell off the pole,” Foglia said. “The moment before he fell off the pole, that’s when I made a picture.”

By the way, no one got hurt, Foglia said, including coyotes.

In short, Foglia describes his process like this: “Out of friendships come situations. In response to those situations, I make photographs. Even when they’re posed or planned, I wait for a moment where something real is happening.”

Many Western ranchers find themselves at a crossroads as they fight off tempting economic incentives from the mining industry. As mining companies offer big money to buy ranches which have belonged to families for generations, the economic pressures make ranching more difficult.

“It’s hard because it’s a 24/7 job,” said Foglia, who rolled up his sleeves during this project and worked alongside ranchers. “You always have to be tending to crops or livestock, and they’re susceptible to weather, like an early frost or a drought on a crop of hay or herd of cattle. It’s unpredictable.”

Mining booms have been a salvation for some folks, like a former beautician Foglia met named Alice Hanauska. Driving a truck for a mining company has allowed the single mom to earn more money than she’s ever made in her life. Better benefits, too.

“For her, that job was in some ways a salvation from a difficult economic position in the midst of a global economic recession,” Foglia said.

But eventually, the ore will run out — or suffer a price plunge. Then it all may come crashing down.

“Any mine will eventually be depleted. Mines close and take jobs away with them. The land is left scarred. This is a region of America that has an economy that is in large part based on mining.” Foglia said. “For me, that’s scary.”

But the book transcends mining, ranching or even America’s West. It speaks to residents in more populated areas that are threatened by suburban sprawl. Even in Foglia’s native Long Island, developers are knocking on the door at his parents’ family farm — one of the last in the area.

The theme is applicable to anyone holding property on the edge of a town with dynamic suburban development.

“I hope that the photographs in my book provoke people to ask questions,” Foglia said. "I also hope they leave space for people to find their own answers.”

Foglia’s “Frontcountry” photos will be on exhibit at Fredericks & Freiser Gallery in New York from March 20 to April 19, at Michael Hoppen Contemporary in London from March 27 to May 10, and at Robischon Gallery in Denver from September 18 to November 1.

- Thom Patterson, CNN