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Words Joe Magowan

Photography Andy Pilsbury

Real Cowboys
Know How to Kiss

‘Real Cowboys Know How to Kiss’ is Andy Pilsbury’s ongoing photographic enquiry into the UK’s American Western Riding scene. It centres itself around one main character, Brian ‘The Cotswold Cowboy’ Sinnett, a “diversified agriculturalist who shares his identity with the States.” The project forms one fifth of his dummy book The Flesh & the Fantasy’, which documents America’s cultural influence in the UK, and the people who choose to align themselves more towards an American identity than a British one.

‘Real Cowboys Know How to Kiss’ is a line taken from Brian Sinnett’s ‘Memorandum to the Cowboy Way’, a text which the project is based on. The text challenges the status quo of competitive American Western horse riding, and posits Brian’s idea of ‘passive horsemanship’, a style of riding that is more mindful and focused on the natural movements and emotional needs of the horse. The term ‘kissing’ here, is an American term which describes a method of communicating with a horse to command attention.

Joe Magowan spoke to Andy about how he captures this romanticised version of US culture in the United Kingdom, and where he plans to take the project next.

Joe Magowan: The subject matter of ‘Real Cowboys Know How to Kiss’ is a very niche and obscure community within the UK, that a lot of people probably don’t know exists. How did you first become aware of the UK’s American Western riding scene, and how did you build on your initial interest to begin the project?

Andy Pilsbury: You’re right, the Western Riding scene is a really small and enigmatic community, but a fascinating one. I came across the scene through ongoing research into the presence of American culture within the UK. For quite some time I have been following events, individuals and subcultures that have some sort of connection to themes and symbols associated with specific values of American culture. For example, my project ‘Still Taking Care of Business’ examines the world of Elvis tribute acts and their fascinating interpretive performances, and my work with the reenactment community acknowledges the origin and its introduction into British entertainment culture. So, I landed on the Western scene through an existing interest but specifically when I moved house to Cheltenham.

There’s a really big Equestrian scene in the Cotswolds, especially in Cheltenham where the world-famous races take place. I met Brian, a Western horse trainer who runs a school not far from where I live. Through meeting with Brian, I learnt more about Western riding as a leisure activity but also competition. Though Brian no longer participates in competitions, he does train clients in how to ride Western, with his unique and modified version, called Passive Horsemanship. Along with introducing me to the Western Scene, Brian had notable affections for America that intrigued me and I knew would fit with my other curiosities around the topic.

JM: You mention the individuals in the community aligning themselves to American political phrases like ‘Make America Great Again’ rather than those associated with UK politics. Why do you think that some individuals connect more with an American identity, and its respective politics, than a British one?

AP: I think that people connect with America in a number of ways, from a very basic level to potentially something much deeper. America is deeply rooted in our psyche and this can manifest in a number of ways, sometimes without even knowing. Our connections over political, cultural, diplomatic, economic and historic relations can often be described as our ‘Special Relationship’ between one another.

From a political standpoint it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why people may identify as there are many factors to consider, but I believe part of it comes from the dissatisfaction with one’s own political and economic status mirrored with the desire for change. This of course can play into identity. There is also the notion that the grass is always greener and so on.

With a general rise and mobilisation of the far right in the Western society, straight talking characters like Trump have proven appealing to many, even here across the pond. By offering simplified answers and reductive solutions, albeit rooted in division and resentment he is winning the popular vote. It seems Trump is accelerating existing ideas and logics that are already at play and in existence within the West, he’s just selling them in a way that plays on people’s vulnerabilities. Now that we are leaving the EU, similarities can be seen which are rooted in the nationalism and isolation of Trump’s rhetoric. I’m sure for some here, they too would build a wall if they could. There are indeed similarities between ‘Take Back Control’ and ‘Make America Great Again’ but the latter for some with an extended interest in American culture, particularly those interested in the American West seem to be more seduced. 

On another level, I have met people at the Western competitions that are agnostic in their political beliefs but may have grown up on Spaghetti Westerns. They simply prefer the American style of riding over the English schooling, with an appreciation for the visual style and alternate approach. The notion and legend of the ‘cowboy’ can be more appealing with the coolness and ruggedness of its character opposed to the strict approach and cleanliness of British presentation.

From 'Real Cowboys Know How to Kiss' ©Andy Pilsbury

JM: In ‘Memorandum to The Cowboy Way’, the text by Brian Sinnett which the project is based on, there’s an acknowledgement that people within the Western Riding scene almost always have Republican values. Brian wonders whether this could be due to the wealth required to be involved in the community but doesn’t seem convinced.  Why do you think this might be?

AP: In the memorandum Brian comments on his American clients having predominantly Republican views and poses a link between the wealth needed to travel to the UK and ride, and their political preferences. However, he does state a correlation between the electoral voting map of recent years, being predominantly Red for the vast agricultural and poorer states. These demographics can be seen as the ones turning up to the Trump rallies, the ones who ‘haven’t had a pay rise for thirty-five years’ so he suggests there isn’t a clear delineation between political viewpoint and wealth compared to what might have been in the past. Personally, I’m not convinced there is a link to a Republican leaning majority in the British Western scene, some I have encountered share that political belief but not the majority.

JM: I think it’s really interesting that you’ve based the project around a text written by the main subject. It’s a very attentive and collaborative approach. How has Brian’s text informed the way you make your images? Have you used literature in previous projects in this way before?

AP: Brian’s text has provided me with a structure to work from and the themes that he talks about are at the forefront when making images for this project. He talks about topics that I would not have necessarily thought of when considering the subject, so it provides me with an alternate viewpoint when working. It’s also a really good guide for when I start to veer off topic, although veering off can also provide new opportunities. I’ve not worked with text and images in this way before so it will be interesting to see where it leads. Usually for me the images are initially made, and the text will follow after a period of reflection on the work, so switching the order has been a refreshing way to work. The project’s still in its infancy and I will be looking at making more work with Brian and around this subculture once the restrictions lift.

JM: On the topic of restrictions, have you been able to continue working on the project in any capacity since the lockdown began? Any further research or remote communication with Brian, or any leads on other potential subjects?

I did reach out to Brian at the start of lockdown but have not heard anything back. He is self-employed so I can imagine his priorities are currently with the business. Because of the pandemic all riding events and gatherings have been postponed until further notice, so realistically I’ll be picking up the project next year when hopefully things will have settled. I do hope to touch base with Brian in the meantime to discuss the project further, but don’t want to force my approach as I know it’s a stressful time for many. On a positive note, I have had time to research other projects and leads that have been sat at the bottom of the pile.

From 'Real Cowboys Know How to Kiss' ©Andy Pilsbury

JM: Something I found myself doing when looking at your portraits was trying to imagine how the subjects sound and how they conduct themselves. Does the fascination with traditional US culture stop at riding competitions, fashion and automobile choices, or have they taken on the American persona in a deeper sense, using American language and behaviour as well?

AP: I haven’t come across any western riders yet who have shown American stereotypical traits like an accent, but wider afield I have come across American sounding Brits, but more from a performative perspective. Competitive Western riding is judged solely on appearance and technique, adding an accent in would be too far for most.

Contrary to that I had an amusing encounter with a guy called ‘Red Neck’ Dave at a car festival I was shooting last year. He was deep in conversation with some friends, so I politely waited to ask him for his portrait. He had a tanned, leathery complexion, a mullet, sleeveless checked shirt, rollups, the lot. He looked genuine, as if he was plucked straight from the Midwest. During the time I waited to photograph him, I couldn’t help thinking what he would sound like when he would speak. When he finished speaking with his friends, I headed over and was greeted with the thickest Yorkshire accent I’d ever heard, it was almost unrecognisable, and with that, all my preconceptions had been erased.

With my Americana work I’m interested in presenting subtle juxtapositions of culture. Part of the strength comes from a sense that the work could have been made in the American landscape, but is then grounded by something distinctly British and vice versa. Preconceptions and illusions are encouraged and then taken away.

JM: A key theme of Brian’s text is the concept of ‘passive horsemanship’, and that despite the hyper-masculine preconception people have of cowboys, the ‘real’ cowboys who ride horses for functional, agricultural purposes, have a very tender and sensitive relationship with them, [and are strongly against using them as tools to get a job done]  a deep-seated belief in harmony between humans and animals. There’s definitely a serenity in your images that helps get this point across, but have you thought of any other approaches you might take to further develop this idea?

I have experienced horse riding on the odd occasion when I was younger and a couple of times whilst travelling, but nothing serious. Since starting the project, I have spoken with Brian about riding and training myself, to get a better understanding of his techniques and how a relationship can develop between horse and rider. The ‘relationship’ has always been on my mind whilst shooting the project as it’s something that is often touched upon throughout history, pop culture, literature and film. The question is how the relationship and its intricacies can be documented. Brian and the wider western riding scene have really opened my eyes to the potential of the rider and horse relationship. I was amazed to see the subtle, yet precise control and command that a horse would take – and the mutual respect that is between both, it’s quite something. Further down the line I would like to explore moving image with this relationship in mind.

From 'Real Cowboys Know How to Kiss' ©Andy Pilsbury

JM: ‘Real Cowboys Know How to Kiss’ is one of five photographic stories in a dummy book you’ve made ‘The Flesh and The Fantasy’, about American culture in the UK. Why did you choose to present the work in this way? And not as 5 separate entities for example.

AP: The dummy came to realisation whilst on the East meets West masterclass program hosted by GRAIN and FORMAT earlier this year. Up until that point I had been shooting the work as separate entities and not thinking of them as a whole, so hadn’t even considered it in book form. However, through the process of critiques and presentations we realised that there were plenty of overlapping themes and connections between the stories which would be worth exploring as a whole. The masterclass was the first opportunity I’d had in a very long time to share my work to a wider audience and the broader perspective and feedback really helped in shaping the new direction. I was then fortunate to be awarded a bursary to see the project through into book form which I’m currently working on now. Building the sequence has been great, and the work is really starting to take shape. I have been grouping images in a way that I would not have typically considered is creating some fascinating connections and relationships that are feeding the overarching story, so watch this space!

JM: The Flesh and the Fantasy has so far seen you document Elvis Tribute Artists, motorbike club culture, the Western riding scene, historical reenactors and American car enthusiasts. Where do you think your fascination with American culture in the UK will take you next? Or do you think you’ll move on from this topic and start to focus on something else entirely?

AP: I’ve got a long list of subcultures that I’d like to explore before I’m finished so I can see this project going on for some time. Unfortunately though, a lot of the groups are focused around events or gatherings, so everything is on hold for the time being. It does give me time to research and chase up new leads which I guess is one of the silver linings to this pandemic. I’ve got a couple more projects on the go which will keep me busy after the dummy book is done. One is on a fascinating character from Lincolnshire who identifies as ‘off grid’ and the second is something completely different in terms of approach and content, a project on the Cold War.

Joe Magowan

Joe is a London based photographer from Northern Ireland. He spends most of his free time wandering the streets and going to raves by himself.

Andy Pilsbury

Andy is a photographer living in Cheltenham, UK. His current work is focused on the export of American culture and its manifestation by outsiders here in the UK. His work examines symbolism, ideology and culture that journeys through genres of iconic subcultures, commenting on historic and contemporary themes.

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