Well, I’ve returned from the Southwest after teaching a one-week course called “The American West: The Vision and the Print” at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops. My very dear friend Melinda Green Harvey was in the class, and I can’t even begin to express how much fun I had working with such a pal over a whole week, and just talking about pictures to boot! But now I’m back, and it’s time to get back to work on shooting.
I was honored earlier this year when the Nebraska Arts Council named me as one of their 16 solo/duo statewide exhibitors for the Fred Simon Gallery in Omaha’s Old Market district for 2015. Of course, that comes with a workload–I have to produce a new body of work. While the overall series is about half done, I won’t show much of the pieces until the show opens in April of next year.
I drive a lot of back roads. A lot. It drives my wife—and on trips, my students—nuts at times. But this habit grew from my understanding that back roads offer prime chances at images few people ever see, a chance to unite a rural sensibility with a visual aesthetic that has both meaning and appeal.
Harbinger of much-needed moisture for the shortgrass of the remote ranching country of eastern Wyoming’s High Plains, a 2 a.m. thunderstorm’s lightning strike softly illuminates the contours of the land. Such storms spelled problems for ranchers in the past, turning back roads into greasy, impassable swamps, but with the bittersweet boom of the new oil and gas bonanza has also come newly improved roads that provide a never-before-seen ease of access to the backcountry for residents.
Such thoughts never occurred to me until those same roads allowed me to get home on Saturday after the rains turned the Lusker Ranch road into, well…soup.
I’ve been working in earnest on my new series, Recollections, an exploration of memory as it interacts with legend and tradition. This piece, “Longhorns, Glen,” is an example of how I’ve been visualizing the ways in which that theme can be expressed through symbols of the West.
Thursday night last week was one of those magical evenings when, as Ansel Adams was fond of saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I had been to Lost Springs a number of times to photographically explore, but as storms rolled across east-central Wyoming near evening, I came back with the expectation of something…special. Chance, indeed: A train rolled through town, allowing life in the shot, and as a gift, the storm gave me a lightning bolt.
It was 4:50 in the morning, and the coffee was hot. Jim and the other two cowhands were dressed and awake, the morning light barely evident outside, and the conversation between the four of us was made of staccato sentences. Cowboys say little, I have found, for unless words need said, they are frivolous residents in an otherwise truthful life.
Jim slowly rose, and asked, “Enough light?”
The others nodded. They rose, pulled on their boots, and began their saunter outside to saddle the horses. It was time, and Jim paused for a moment in the empty kitchen as the day began.
Branding season is back, and with it, my next installment of the Tough Hands series. I’ve tried to expand my view for this year, focusing on the textures and tones of the weathered, hardy individuals who inspired the series at its start.
Ah, spring in ranch country. My assistant and I had been on the road for four hours, and as the sun’s first light began revealing the details of Nebraska’s Sand Hills at 4:30 a.m., I remarked to her that the smell–oh, the smell–of new plains grass in the cold, clean air was a welcome reminder of the scents from my own childhood. Nectar for the nose, I said.
Later, as the branding wore on, I had found my classic faces in the group and I asked Sid, a careworn, intelligent and respected rancher to step into the shed and make a portrait or three. He graciously accepted, and the light in his eyes reflected a life well-lived.