Life’s bittersweet underbelly revealed itself for me this last year, making 2015 one which I’ll never forget. As written in some previous posts, I’ve struggled trying to identify, to understand, then to express the emotions 2015 has left with me; as artists, we don’t run from the pain, we embrace it and use it.
I’ve long contemplated this photograph and several variations thereof; I knew I had to make it, but struggled with a satisfactory iteration in camera. But in December, one of my dearest friends suggested a balloon for the composition as we discussed my image plans while driving in northwest Texas. The wheels began turning, and this last Saturday, I made the first image of the idea, channelling my sense of isolation in the below-zero temperatures.
I’ve begun a new project called “The Bones of Winter,” and sketches are important to the final product in any endeavor. The above is one such draft, and all are focused on a poem of Dickinson:
The sky is low, the clouds are mean,
A travelling flake of snow
Across a barn or through a rut
Debates if it will go.
A narrow wind complains all day
How some one treated him;
Nature, like us, is sometimes caught
Without her diadem.
While I was in New Mexico this summer teaching at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, I took a pilgrimage to the Andrew Smith Gallery, which deals solely in photography by the likes of the Westons, Ansel Adams, Edward Curtis and Lee Friedlander. Paul Caponigro is also there, and while he is most certainly not afforded the fame given to Ansel Adams, he would be very deserving of such. An original Caponigro has deep, midnight blacks punctuated by staccato bursts of near-white that leave the viewer unsettled and contemplative, yet placated by the natural beauty so overlooked within daily life. They are poems of sublime quietness.
So after I had left the landscape of mystery behind, moving north to Colorado, I found in my travels a small lake in the wilds of the Sawatch range that moved me much like a Caponigro.
I traveled the Junk Jaunt trail this last weekend, following locations that sold everything from antiques to—no kidding—secondhand underwear. Yuck.
Luckily, I was only interested in photographs, and at a warehouse in Ansley, Nebraska, my students and I found a back room populated with chairs. The owner, Jim, is a retired illustrator with a penchant for three-dimensional storage art, it would seem.
I think he certainly had an eye for creating photo opportunities.
I learned long ago the Great Plains is populated by closet feminists, for here women are just as capable (and welcome) riders and ropers as men. Just watch a few breakaway calf roping performances, and you’ll understand that in the wide spaces before the Rocky Mountains, women need not pull any punches. Tough as nails and happy to prove it.
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.
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.
One may assume, for a photographer, a drought in the publishing of images means one of three things: 1) the photographer has finally reached the limit of his or her tolerance for despair and thus has given up the craft, opting rather to join the merchant marine; 2) the photographer has been in the field shooting; or 3) the photographer has been eaten by a bear.
I’m glad that No. 2 was the case for me.
I’m just back from teaching at the Santa Fe Photographic Workshops, where I had the pleasure of shooting with Susan Portnoy, the blogger behind The Insatiable Traveler, as well as my dear friend George Bumstead, a rising star in the photographic world. During that workshop, a bit of black and white humor emerged as the class began equating personalities with Ansel Adams’ and Fred Archer’s Zone System.
The class decided I am a Zone 3.
And so I returned to the Colorado backcountry after Santa Fe to work on new visions, fully embracing the darkness.
One of the best parts of my photographic life is the people I meet on the road at rodeos, county fairs, brandings, and elsewhere. Every story is interesting, for each life is different. But occasionally, one story stands out, a story that is vastly different than others. Sammy Geisler is just such a story, for in all my years shooting rodeos, I’ve never met anyone like her.
She’s a bronc rider. The only woman I’ve ever met who was.
In such a legacy sport nearly universally dominated by men, being a woman comes with an uphill battle for respect and recognition that’s tougher than the men have had to face. That means she’s tougher than nails, to say the least.
And I simply had to make a portrait of that brand of strength.