Sam Contis / Matrix 266 at the UC Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive (BAMPFA)

Sam Contis, Hothouse, 2015. Courtesy the artist and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery

Founded in 1917 by industrialist L.L. Nunn, Deep Springs College is a two-year, all-male, liberal-arts institution that emphasizes physical labor and self-governance in an academic setting. Located along the border between Nevada and California and at a distance from societal distractions, the school’s verdant campus interrupts an otherwise desolate desert landscape.

In 2013, Oakland-based photographer Sam (short for Samantha) Contis set out to investigate the mythology linking masculinity and the conquest of the American West through photographs of Deep Springs College. Her series, published by MACK earlier this year and on view at BAMPFA through August 27, explores a number of contemporary issues – identity, hotly debated definitions of gender, and the value of a college education versus learning a trade.

Displayed in a long vitrine, photos Contis borrowed from the school’s archive point to the themes that inform her work; masculinity and its performance, and the male body in the landscape. Contis’s own close-cropped black-and-white compositions portray students involved in the daily life of a working ranch – harvesting eggs and wrangling animals or slaughtering them for food. While students of color represent 30 percent of the student body, these, images also acknowledge the visual legacy of white men bringing to heel the wild western landscape that was established in 19th-century photographic work by Timothy O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson, and later codified in popular films.

Sam Contis, Arbor, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery

Departing from this established narrative, Contis’s color work portrays masculinity and the male body as less predictable subjects than the archetypes that precede them. Hothouse presents a young, shirtless man; the grit coating his upper back and shoulders suggest a sensate connection to the land not found in early images of pioneers or cowboys. Echo captures two students embracing; and Arbor features a young man with delicate blond curls seated cross-legged beneath a garden lattice. These images suggest that Deep Springs, perhaps unexpectedly, might be a place where sexual and gender identity can be explored.

In the essay that accompanies the exhibition, BAMPFA Director and Chief Curator Lawrence Rinder points to an Ovidian sense of metamorphosis in the photographs that resonates between the land and the young men who work it. For these students, it may be the last place in which the beautiful awkwardness they feel will be accepted before they are thrust into a socio-political context that forbids uncertainty in its “real” men. It is a gift to see vulnerability captured in Contis’s photographs.