A cold night, well spent.
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.
I think it’s inevitable that faith is an indispensable factor in the equation of ranching. After all, your life is tied to myriad forces out of your control: weather, disease, markets and luck. Trust and faith become more than a trivial matter, for you are left no choice but to admit the land and nature are larger than you.
Moreover, you’re reminded every morning and evening (on the back of a horse, if you’re really lucky) that the West is a magical place as the giant sun rises and sets amidst fiery-hued clouds on the horizon of one of the most breathtaking places on Earth, the American High Plains. One sunrise, the sunbeams breaking through the dark clouds onto a wide-sweeping vista, and you’re hooked.
Faith? Indeed. But a celebration of majesty as well.
“His saddle was his most prized possession; it served as his chair, his workbench, his pillow at night,” wrote Geoffrey C. Ward, author of The West. Today’s ranch hands have more to their names, including trucks, trailers, smartphones, and computers. But the tack of the trade–saddle, blanket, chaps, bridle, and other gear–remains as the central object of pride in ownership for the American rancher, and the details of that pride are easily evident here.
Tough Hands is an “everyperson” project, meant to focus on the essence of the people who live the ranch life in the American West. Thus, it’s more about posture, clothing, hands, boots, equipment, texture and gesture. Case in point: No. 5 in the series, a treatise on the textures and postures of true American ranchers.
Jim had great hands.
James Stanfield, a National Geographic photographer, once noted how a crowd would have only a few classic faces within it, and I think this extends to hands. As a result, I often begin looking at hands and faces when I’m presented with a new venue, and at my last branding–a large one with more than 35 people working–I found several of each.
Back to Jim. He was castrating calves for part of the morning, and would come back to the antiseptic bucket near the fire to clean his hands and knife. It had been deeply overcast and cold early, and nearly everyone wore gloves, so I missed Jim’s gnarled, strong, creased hands. But near 9 a.m., the weather had warmed, and the gloves came off. And I found hands.
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.
“That looks like an advertising image,” said Liz, my friend and fellow professional photographer.
“Maybe,” I answered, “but there’s a difference between an advertising image and this one.”
“Oh? What’s that,” Liz asked.
“Look at the boot,” I returned. “No advertising image could capture a boot that had been so ‘prettied up’ by ranch life. This is a document, not propaganda.”
Liz and I have shot together for countless hours, brandings upon brandings, landscapes beyond count, ghost towns unnamed. She sat and pondered for a moment, then spoke.
“Mmm-hmm. You’re right. That boot couldn’t be anything but real.”
I’ve spent the last several months exploring abstract relationships in the natural and human world, and with the onset of spring in the High Plains, I’m now back photographing the subjects I find most intriguing: the American West and those happy, hardy individuals who love it. Black and white “everyperson” shots have been nagging in my artistic vision for some years, and this spring I’ve begun exploring them in earnest. Contrast, textures, skin tones, and fabrics all beckon for imagery and attention, and I’m more than happy to oblige. I’m calling the project “Tough Hands.”
The second of two pieces in the PlainSky Nebraskans show featuring boots, I was captivated by this man’s boots, the wagon wheel, pipe and dry, dead grass in the shadows. For me, it is a image about life expressed in textures.