Caroline Tompkins Captures the Wild Heat of Rural America

The Ohio-born artist brings primal instinct and notions of countryside innocence together in subtle ways, probing the rural US landscape for moments of fiery human and animal activity.

Caroline Tompkins
Namibia, 2017

The idealized rural landscape might first come to mind when viewing Caroline Tompkins’s photographs, but look a little closer at the burning trailers, throbbing erections and carnal pleasures that litter her series and a more complex image will begin to unfold. “I’m from a relatively rural part of Ohio,” she says, “so I think it’s natural to associate your origin to purity and innocence. It’s a tool like anything else; if you believe that the natural world is free and uncorrupted, how can I play upon that?… I’ve noticed in the past few years, the work I make that excites me the most is from somewhere I find deeply uncomfortable. Lately, the discomfort I find most interesting is the deep entanglement between women’s heterosexual desire and fear and violence. To love men is to fall prey to them. I’m trying to make pictures that exist on this line.”

“If you believe that the natural world is free and uncorrupted, how can I play upon that?”

Untitled (South Dakota), 2017

In Tompkins’s images, we see animals—often ones that are semi-tamed: horses, goats and dogs—and we see the human presented as one of their kin, prone to passion, tenderness and their own nature. Her images feel intimate, as though we are stumbling into a real moment between lovers or catching the outside world off-guard. “I have a favourite feeling when photographing,” says Tompkins. “It’s a certain type of bellyaching, upper-lip-sweating, hand-trembling anxiety. It happens most when I set the table correctly, and the world surprises me.”




This feature originally appeared in Issue 41