Unraveling the myth of the American West

Story highlights

  • Photographer Tim Richmond spent three months hitchhiking his way through the Western states
  • His images include people and places in faraway towns in Montana, South Dakota and Utah
  • See hi-resolution photos from Richmond's "Last Best Hiding Place" series here

(CNN)Tim Richmond's fascination with the American West began as a boy in England, watching cowboy movies on TV.

"The film 'Hud' with Paul Newman in 1963 or 'Bad Day at Black Rock' with Spencer Tracy ... and 'Junior Bonner' with Steve McQueen as a sort of rodeo rider," said Richmond. "It seemed like another world from sort of drab England."
Tim Richmond
When he turned 17, Richmond headed to the United States, where he spent three months hitchhiking his way through the Western states.
    "I just wanted to see things like I'd seen in films," he said.
    Richmond captures the solitude and expanse of places like central Wyoming and Montana in his latest photography project, "Last Best Hiding Place," which releases in book format in June in the United Kingdom and in the fall in the United States.
    But don't expect any romanticized, idyllic scenes in his photography.
    "I preferred the idea of actually slowly looking at the places away from perhaps Western art," he explained. "Looking at the the sort of everyday side of things, which I find more interesting."
    Richmond began the project seven years ago as the financial crisis began to unfold across the United States. He said he was surprised by "the scale of development on halt in the towns outside Salt Lake City."
    He named his photography series "Last Best Hiding Place" after a phrase he came across during his travels, referring to those living "slightly under the radar" in remote parts of the American West.

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    "Some of the parts in ... central Wyoming and central Montana, they are as remote as I've ever been," Richmond said. "And when you're traveling 50 miles between almost just a gas station and that's it, it sort of changes one's viewpoint of scale and distance."
    Richmond spent the early part of his career as a fashion photographer and taking portraits of actors including Ben Kingsley, Ian McKellen and Emma Thompson -- but his heart wasn't in it.
    "I wasn't really thrilled by the idea of being a fashion photographer," Richmond said.
    "After the death of my first wife, it just sort of taught me to do what you want to do, and I go 'OK I want to concentrate on this sort of work.'"
    His images include people and places in faraway towns like Miles City, Montana; Deadwood, South Dakota; and Eureka, Utah. Often, Richmond would determine where he'd go next by pulling out a map and picking a town that had an interesting name.
    Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn't.
    "I remember looking in Utah one time and I came across this town -- I just thought, well it sounds really interesting and it's in the hills, and it's called Eureka," Richmond explained. "The story of the town itself is quite typical of a lot of those towns: it was nothing, no food, it grew huge and then slowly died off.
    "(But) the thing that really fascinated me was the fact that this town was really hanging on ... everything just seemed to click in that town."
    Richmond spent one summer traveling with a group of rodeo cowboys, captured in one image simply doing their laundry. He said the biggest culture shock of his entire trip happened during the rodeo events.
    "I was surprised by ... the sense that at rodeos, you have the whole idea of prayers. It's such an un-English thing. At any sort of sports event (in England) you wouldn't have a quiet moment and say the Lord's Prayer and 'God bless the troops' ... but out there it seemed absolutely standard."
    Out of the thousands of images that he took, Richmond carefully selected ones he felt embody the real face of the American West.
    But he insists that his audience needs to "create their own backstory" about what they are witnessing in his photos.
    "The place has to resonate with me ... there has to have some sort of lyricism or poetry about the image so people can see into it," he said. "There's no story here so the pictures don't have to fit in ... these pictures can float around a bit more, they don't have to fit with a strict text narrative."