The American West

Young Cowboys, Elwood

Young Cowboys, Elwood

Young Cowboys, Elwood

I really do love small rodeos. I have a lot of reasons: the metaphors of the West, the poetry of youth and bravado, the music of community and tradition. But there are times I’m presented with an image that leaves me breathless, for it combines many of those beloved reasons into a single image.

These young cowboys had been sauntering around the Elwood rodeo all night, and as the saddle bronc and bareback event drew to a close, the future rodeo stars congregated on the fence like so many grown cowboys I’ve seen before, but with the starry eyes of admiration seeping from every corner of the image. Hopeful rodeo heroes, I thought.

Future stalwarts of the West, these young men. Future stalwarts.

Snow Field, Rocky Mountains

Snow Field, Rocky Mountains

Snow Field, Rocky Mountains

I don’t shoot things because they’re pretty. In fact, I often use “pretty” as a backdrop for troubling things, contrasting the sublime with the symbolic, rejecting simple aesthetic for a more introspective examination of my own relationship with the visual and modern world. Those “fusion” images, to borrow a term from a dear friend, are rare, and even more so those that grab me by the throat and shake me, demanding to be made.

The above image is one of those images for me. I had seen it from afar several times in the high country over the preceding days, but the high altitude light and cheery, puffy clouds had not illuminated the deep, brooding character of the composition. In looking at it, I felt bitter cold, profound isolation, and looming threat. On the third day, with churning storm clouds boiling overhead, and the freezing wind chewing at my face, the photograph finally revealed itself, and I made eight frames in response to its demands.

Diversity

Diversity

Diversity

One of my dearest friends announced his retirement today, and I’m devastated. Heartbroken.

The moment has left me pondering the temporary nature of our perceived permanence; in other words, our propensity to assume, incorrectly, the relative order of our lives. And yet all is entropy in the end.

It made me think of this image, one I made this summer in response to the timeless, yet disparate nature of the scene at hand.

School Bus, Grant

School Bus, Grant

School Bus, Grant

My dear friend and former assistant Liz McCue and I were at an antique-car auction on Saturday morning, and as I told Liz, I went into the event looking for more images that illustrated my ideas about the chaff and decay of humanity’s past as viewed through the present.

Wild Horse Race, Bartlett

Wild Horse Racing, Bartlett

Wild Horse Racing, Bartlett

I love shooting rodeos–after all, they’re the subject of my next book. And at rodeos, wild horse races are by far one of the most energizing, terrifying events for a photographer. Horses and people bucking and running and shouting and riding all mean lots of danger, and that’s a certainty if one isn’t careful.

But the photos are worth it.

Boy in Inflatable House, Bartlett

Boy in Inflatable House, Bartlett

Boy in Inflatable House, Bartlett

I’ve always found textures a worthwhile and intoxicating tool for making photographs, as well as frames-within-frames, so when I found this inflatable house at the Wheeler County Fair and a boy playing inside, I stuck around for a bit–and was rewarded.

Rodeo Cowboys, Arthur

Rodeo Cowboys, Arthur

Rodeo Cowboys, Arthur

Rodeo stops for nothing. Nothing.

A massive storm rolled through the skies over Arthur, Nebraska, for the Saturday performance at the rodeo, complete with massive wind, torrential rains, and…lightning. Big bolts of lightning. But no one moved, especially the cowboys.

And so the festivities continued, and so did I, photographing–and I was rewarded with the storm and sunset and visual drama and…this image.

Returning to the Land of the Living

Cowboys at Anthem, Stapleton

Cowboys at Anthem, Stapleton

I’ve always liked the last line of Tolkein’s The Return of the King: “Well, I’m back.” And so I am, after digging out the studio from a mound of baby clothes and papers after a nearly four-week absence. I had a wonderful group of students at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshop, and I learned more from them than I’m sure they learned from me (which is how it usually works). Since I’ve been back from New Mexico and Colorado, I’ve been on a fair number of shoots as I try to develop the details of my upcoming Nebraska Arts Council exhibition in 2015, but the call of rural rodeos is strong.

Tree, Pond and Fence, South Dakota

Tree, Pond and Fence, South Dakota

Tree, Pond and Fence, South Dakota

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.