West Nebraska

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.

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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.

Sandhills Track, Sheridan County

Sandhills Track, Sheridan County

Sandhills Track, Sheridan County

I’ve always been fascinated with ideas espoused by the photographic movement of The New Topographers, including the work of Robert Adams, but also “Hand of Man” photographer David Plowden. Once one understands the complete loss of the natural landscape–yes, folks, it’s gone–it is moving to contemplate the ways in which our own interaction with the earth has been a symbiotic, destructive relationship.

Billboard, San Luis Valley

Billboard, San Luis Valley

Billboard, San Luis Valley

What is the role of water in the West? That is beyond the scope of a simple blog post and image, and more the subject of innumerable books, articles and documentaries that still have failed to capture completely a vastly complex topic. But I’ve thought about water for a long time, and the Keystone XL Pipeline problem in Nebraska, as it tried to cross over one of the West’s great water reserves, spurred me to begin looking in earnest for images that expressed this conflict.

This is my favorite. It captures so many pieces of the conflict in interesting ways, and it’s an image of which I am very, very proud. Seemingly simple, it masks a complicated and faceted composition that took me more than 72 hours to create.

Ranch Rodeo Horses, Dawes County

Ranch Rodeo Horses, Dawes County

Ranch Rodeo Horses, Dawes County

In the wake of a chilling summer storm, and with the prospect of a muddy evening of ranch rodeo in front of them, teams lined up for their rules briefing at Crawford, Nebraska. Yet, the ranch horse is a smart horse, and these appeared to be as intent on listening as the riders.

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.