'Mama dont let your babies grow up to be cowboys'...... Willie Nelson.
In the Late 1990's whilst on assignment for Levis Strauss in Tulsa I met a man who assured me that the way of the cowboy was over, the struggle had become too much. The iconic figure that is the cowboy was vanishing fast.
How could this be? How sad for me, having grown up with such heroes as 'The Virginian'... John Wayne, the great films like 'The Searchers' made by John Ford, filmed in Monument Valley.
So off I went to tell the story, show the land and how the elements impact the day to day life being a cowhand in the west. Like many that had gone before me I had a vision of how I was going to photograph this. In my research and through the influence of a good friend and fellow photographer Ken Griffith I would shoot on large format film, 4x5 and maybe 8x10 and my trusty Leica M6's. I would shoot polaroid film, Type 55 which gave me a negative to make prints with, a panoramic camera from Hasselblad. But the man who influenced me the most was Erwin Smith, the Cowboy with a camera. Erwin Smith would ride the range with his plate camera and plates strapped to his horse and off he would go. Erwin worked mainly in the southwest, a region that is dry and hot, Rocky canyons and flat high desert. Silence broken only by the hot breeze that would whip up dust devils, a rotating column of dust, or the tell tell rattle made by the tail of the rattle snake.
All very romantic but the reality was that the cowboys way of life was in a state of change, low cattle prices, environmental issues, government restrictions on land use and of course drought, almost twenty years of below average rains have resulted in the ranchers no being able to grow the grass needed to feed the livestock.
This journey or rather labour of love took nearly five years to complete. After the first couple of trips to actually find out how the story was going to unveil itself to me it was commissioned by Macmillan in the UK and St Martins Press in New York.
Now as we head towards the twentieth year since starting the project I will be re publishing it. Although the first imprint was printed in both colour and black/white the new version will be solely black/white. It will also enable me to revisit some of the places I went to long ago (although I keep in touch with many of the people I photographed), I have some old Type 55 polaroid film plus regular 4x5 black/white film stock.
The image of Shiprock in the northwest corner of NM has an interesting bit of folklore. It was told to me that back in the day the Navajo Indians hid in the rock as the Soldiers tried in vain the massacre them all. The Indians proceeded to ride around the rock with the soldiers chasing, the Indians went so fast they came up behind the soldiers and finished them off.
Throughout the duration of this project I had the wonderful opportunity to drive around and explore an area of the USA that is well off the two lane black top. I would travel down dirt tracks, getting my hire cars stuck in mud and rocks. it enabled me to meet and stay with families who have become great friends. Their struggle seems to be continuing but most seem to be adapting so maybe the Iconic figure of the Cowboy will continue to enthral both young and old.