Tough Hands

Sid Thurston, Ashby

Sid Thurston, Ashby

Sid Thurston, Ashby

I simply must make images of Sid Thurston. His hands, his face, his character and his life are all intoxicatingly photogenic, and this image–hopefully, for everyone–proves the point.

Jim, Cowboy Bunkhouse, Sandhills

Jim, Bunkhouse

Jim, Bunkhouse

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.

Tough Hands No. 21

Tough Hands No. 21

Tough Hands No. 21

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.

Spring in the Plains is Back: Sid, Adam Ranch, Sandhills

Sid Thurston, Sandhills

Sid Thurston, Sandhills

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.

Tough Hands 2014: Here We Go Again

Tough Hands No. 14

Tough Hands No. 14

It’s been a long winter. I’ve been sick—so has my family—and the extended, dry cold weather hasn’t helped. Spring is hinting at its return, and with it comes my favorite season: branding. I’ve already set up one shoot at the Adams ranch, a sprawling, treeless expanse in the Sandhills, and I’m working on several others for late May. There simply isn’t much that is more photogenic than real working hands and horses, in my book, and the above image from the Pyle / Meidell branding in 2013 is a reminder of the allure of spring in the West.

Tough Hands No. 11

Tough Hands No. 11

Tough Hands No. 11

I haven’t posted much from Tough Hands for a while; it’s tough to make more during the school year. I’m hoping that will change during the holidays.

That said, this piece reflects the notion of commitment in ranching life; it is a metaphor depicting “for better or for worse, in life and in death” on myriad levels.

Tough Hands: Hat and Hands

Hat and Hands

Hat and Hands

I’ve been fascinated with the meanings of textures for as long as I can remember. What is it to fill a frame with brick? Is it brutality, urbanist, cold, stalwart? So many textures render subtexts we scarcely recognize, but still understand.

They are subtle reminders of the lives we live, or those we observe.

So on a hot and humid summer night, the textures of a Resistol straw hat in the hands of a cowboy who was riding in bronc events at a rodeo caught my eye and my lens. He toyed nervously with the brim, flexing it, twisting it, and after watching for a few moments, I made this photograph, a treatise on the textures of the West.

Tough Hands No. 10

Tough Hands No. 10

Tough Hands No. 10

I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: Bad weather makes good pictures. It’s a lesson taught to me by one of the greats at National Geographic, Sam Abell, and Sam’s not often wrong. So on a cold and windy early June morning, the clouds in the background and the collars turned against the cold added up to an iconic image of real cowboys really cowboying in one of the great ranching landscapes in the American West.

Tough Hands No. 9

Tough Hands No. 9

Tough Hands No. 9

It was only 35 degrees on the late-May morning as we rode the sandy waves of the road that traveled over the treeless northwest Nebraska High Plains to the Meidell’s place. A long line of trucks and trailers greeted us as we pulled up, while riders and their horses milled about excitedly as the work of the branding loomed in the barely-light, windy morning chill. Soon after, the riders left to round up the cattle, and as the first group was brought to the corral, Tricia Meidell and another rider watched vigilantly for any strays that might escape.

Tough Hands No. 8

Tough Hands No. 8

Tough Hands No. 8

I would adopt the entire Meidell family if I could; after all, my book was as much about these five people as any others. Each member of the family is a class act, and photogenic in the extreme (though Tricia and Eric would argue that point). What’s more, all of the Meidells are, in the words of a man Eric once met in Washington, D.C., “Real Cowboys.” Those of us lucky enough to grow up with this life in the Great Plains often forget the legend into which we are born, and the Meidells have earned the hype. Need proof? Look no further than one of several saddles Tricia has won in rodeos.

The Meidells are indeed “real.”