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.
Harbinger of much-needed moisture for the shortgrass of the remote ranching country of eastern Wyoming’s High Plains, a 2 a.m. thunderstorm’s lightning strike softly illuminates the contours of the land. Such storms spelled problems for ranchers in the past, turning back roads into greasy, impassable swamps, but with the bittersweet boom of the new oil and gas bonanza has also come newly improved roads that provide a never-before-seen ease of access to the backcountry for residents.
Such thoughts never occurred to me until those same roads allowed me to get home on Saturday after the rains turned the Lusker Ranch road into, well…soup.
Thursday night last week was one of those magical evenings when, as Ansel Adams was fond of saying, “Chance favors the prepared mind.” I had been to Lost Springs a number of times to photographically explore, but as storms rolled across east-central Wyoming near evening, I came back with the expectation of something…special. Chance, indeed: A train rolled through town, allowing life in the shot, and as a gift, the storm gave me a lightning bolt.
The Rural Impressions show opens this Friday at the Graham Gallery in Hastings, with a public reception from 6-9 pm on Saturday. Featuring 40 images from different series of work over the last five years that examine the complex relationships between the rural West and the land itself, including the image above, the show is meant to inspire viewers to contemplate the myriad forces at work in the rural Great Plains and American West.
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.
I’ve been working on a commission for an agricultural services office, and one of the themes the owner wants is that of “Harvest.” I needed several months to carefully consider the meanings of the word, as well as the cultural connotations as they mate to landscapes.
The project has forced me to return to color work for a while, too, which is not something I’ve done with landscapes for some time. Here’s a contender for the piece.
Fires were vicious this summer in southern Colorado, and when that happens, many photographers go to the fire. I waited until a full moon rose and clouds passed by our cabin late one night, and in the deep dark light of the midnight sun, the smoke from the Three Forks fire made eerie waves as it moved in southwesterly wind.
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.
Well, I’m off photographing in southern Colorado won’t return until July 14. So in the meantime, I’m posting this image from my shoot at the (very) rural Eddyville rodeo from last week.
It was a grand, dirty evening due to the dust; when the light would pass through it, stunning shots happened. It also took me three hours to clean my gear the next day.
As the bronc teams set their mounts and prepared to perform, the sun dropped low on the horizon and the dust mingled with the latent clouds remaining after a strong storm had passed just to the south. The rider’s hand on his hip left a small space for the sun to illuminate the hanging particles of dust hanging in the air, and the light–oh, the light–on his hat and the shadow of his head were simply intoxicating.
Some people just love trees, and I can’t blame them. So do I, and a number of my favorite images feature those actors so prominent in the poetry of Frost. But I’m also a child of the Great Plains, of the West, and sometimes other urges beckon.
And the treeless landscape whispers its own poem in my ear.