Photographing from the Saddle

Article excerpt

After obsessively reading books about cowboys and working as a greenhorn cowboy himself, a photographer hits the trail and documents the contemporary reality of western North American ranchers.

I grew up in rural southern Illinois in the 1940s. What I remember most about my obsessive reading back then was "cowboys on horseback in the western landscape." I also fondly remember the few times I got to ride Daisy, my grandfather's light-work mare. Mostly, however, my "mounts" were the red Farmall tractors I drove for my Uncle Harvey.

I endured the 1950s in suburban Florida. Later, as an architecture major at the University of Florida, a travel scholarship to study American architecture took me to the West Coast and back. The work of Frank Lloyd Wright in the Arizona desert, along with his Prairie Style masterpieces in Illinois and Wisconsin, were indeed inspiring. Farther east, the work of Dow, Sullivan, Rudolph, and Kahn stoked a fire within. But the hottest inner conflagration was ignited by the compelling sculptural landscape of the intermountain West. After that epiphany, I knew that I absolutely had to live "west of the Pecos."

My introduction to cowboys was at Fort Hood, Texas, where as a commissioned army officer, now with his own horse, I spent much of my free time riding with local ranchers who ran cattle on the military reservation. Fast-forward to 1963 when this twenty-six-year-old civilian lucked into a "wetback wage" job as a rookie cowboy on a family ranch on the Arizona-Sonora border.

A father and son from a ranch somewhere in the neighborhood-I can't even remember their names or their faces-had helped us gather cattle on a fine fall day. The bunch was traveling well, and the son (let's call him Mike) and I were in the "drags." Mike, who was a year or two my junior, took down his rope and threw out a nice stand-up loop that trapped the hind feet of a rear echelon cow. My boss hadn't objected to this practice shot, so Mike connected with another, then gave me a look that was clearly an invitation to follow suit. But my rope stayed in its usual place, as saddle decoration. Mike shrugged and said, "Here, check this out." He shook out a considerably bigger loop, and from a single ass-backward-looking swing launched it out over the hindquarters of another cow. The loop hung there, and as she walked it kept drooping down under one side until she stepped into it. Mike jerked his slack and had her by both heels. "That's a good one to know," he allowed.

I realized, then and there, that I wouldn't need to learn that loop, because soon I would head to the city to engage the profession I had trained for-architecture. I also felt, with absolute certainty, that Mike-who had perfected his loop-would become, as the cowboys say, a "lifer," and that his way of life would last forever.

Fast-forward again to when this unlicensed, uninspired architect-cum-serious landscape photographer lucked into a position teaching photography for seven years at a small liberal arts college. Over the years living in various parts of Arizona, I kept a few horses and regularly helped my ranching neighbors with their cattle work, learning the rudiments of stockmanship: gathering, driving, sorting, roping to brand and doctor.

Back in the late 1800s, Laton Alton Huffman would leave his Miles City, Montana, studio to follow the big, open-range cattle roundups. Working with a homemade camera that used 6½" x 8½" dry plates, Huffman achieved a remarkable document of a remarkable place and time. Nearly a century later, when the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation generously started me on the cowboy trail, I elected to arm myself with my 8" x 10" camera, the instrument that I knew best. …