branding

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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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.

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. 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. 3

Tough Hands No. 3

Tough Hands No. 3

In his landmark text Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert M. Pirsig wrote, “I don’t want to hurry it. That in itself is a poisonous twentieth-century attitude. When you want to hurry something, that means you no longer care about it and want to get on to other things.” In essence, it’s a thesis in the examination of caring and quality. Quality only happens with the allocation of time.

My friend Liz, who went with me on this shoot, saw this photo and exclaimed, “Holy cow! How did you get the cowboy framed like that?”

The answer was simple. As my mentor, Sam Abell, taught me, I composed…and waited. Pirsig’s Law, indeed.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: In His Father’s Arms, Mansfield Ranch

In His Father’s Arms, Mansfield Ranch

This young man and his friends have been the subjects of many, many a photograph for me; one of my goals is to continually document these cowboys as they grow into men, with families and children of their own. Yes, the people of western Nebraska are very, very important to me, and although they don’t realize it, they also are very photogenic.

On a dreary and cold May morning, more than three hours into a long day of brandings, I caught the young man in his father’s arms as another calf met its time at the hands of the hands. The photograph shows a son and father connected, a fleeting moment where everyone can see the love shared between the two, a love made stronger by a ranching life on the Great Plains.

It is a photograph of a muse. If one is looking for one of many reasons I can never, will never bear that the PlainSky, Nebraskans project stop, this is it. It is a project of family, evoking a piece of Edward Steichen’s The Family of Man: The Family of the Plains.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Branding Pair, Lusker Ranch

Branding, Lusker Ranch

Branding, Lusker Ranch

In the entire time I shot the branding at the Lusker Ranch, I heard fewer than four sentences from the cowboy on the right; it was time to work, not socialize. His demeanor matched his appearance, one of no guff and a life of hard work. But at this moment–a rare one during the day–he took a moment to rest and admire the landscape he in which he is lucky to live, and relish the life he is fortunate to lead.

PlainSky, Nebraskans: Family Branding, Lusker Ranch

Meidells Branding, Lusker Ranch

Meidells Branding, Lusker Ranch

Yesterday, I posted twice: First, an image of Abby Meidell, the oldest daughter in the Meidell family, who is recovering from a ruptured spleen, and a repost of “25 Things I Want My Ranch Kids To Know,” which was forwarded to me from a very good friend of mine who lives in northwest Nebraska. So, as I thought about those two elements from yesterday, I found it appropriate to post an image of more of the family.

Here, Eric Meidell brands a calf as Abby, his 12-year-old daughter, looks on, and Tricia Meidell leans in on the left. Just as important is the fact that the Meidells work for two different ranching families: Eric for one, Tricia for another. Yet each ranch gets the whole family in the deal: Tricia and the kids work just as hard for Eric’s boss as Eric and the kids do for Tricia’s.

That is the ultimate reason I felt compelled to post this shot soon after the 25 Things repost. Ranchers belong to a special group of people, one that requires hard work, extreme constitution and familial loyalty for membership.