James O’Connell

James O’Connell was born in Los Angeles but has spent much of his formative years wandering the American Southwest. He studied photography and poetry at Emerson College before dropping out. In the summers he worked as a river guide and learned to appreciate not only the landscape for its almost surreal appearance but also the mythologies and cultures injected into that landscape. His work is a conversation with the Southwest and the often bizarre artifacts that inhabit the landscape. James has recently relocated to Chicago to continue pursuing his education in photography.


No other region in the United States is as intimately connected to our mythology of Manifest Destiny as the Southwest. The landscape has often been the stage and subject of distinctly American artists and movements. Many times though the depictions of the “West” are romanticized and oversimplified depictions of the region and its history. The popularized art and media of the region have often disarmed the brutal and sadistic history of Manifest Destiny through caricature and cultural erasure, as an attempt to make the conquest of the American Southwest palatable to Anglo-America.

Manifest is an ongoing exploration of how the landscape of the southwest has become a distorted reflection of Manifest Destiny. The caricatured Kachina dancers, parking lots, curio shops, and billboards have become as ubiquitous to the landscape as slot canyons or vast vistas. I am interested in the complicated nature of these objects in the landscape. How they interact as both artifacts evoking humor, but also continue a legacy of cultural erasure and environmental degradation. I am also interested in how these objects change in the landscape and through weather and intervention, and sometimes become subversive to the ideology they were intended to propagate. The animals that are scattered throughout the series become a bridge between the symbolic world and ours. Symbolically, they bear the weight of the cultural perceptions of the region but are just as likely to steal your lunch or huddle beneath a billboard for shade. By photographing these artifacts and animals in the context of the landscape I hope to create a complex vision of the Southwest reflecting the nervous tension between the region’s mythology and its reality.

To view more of James O’Connell’s work please visit his website.