Past Exhibitions > My Ranching Life by Jean Laughton

My Ranching Life by Jean Laughton
My Ranching Life by Jean Laughton

Ildiko Butler Gallery
May 22 – September 30, 2015
Reception: September 23, 2015, 6-8

‘Trailing Fortune’s Yearlings Twenty Miles to Town”
19.5” x 39”

It was a chilly morning as we pushed over three hundred head of yearlings across the stirrup deep White River and then across many a pasture and down many a road to town.

Statement: Since 2003, I have been cowboying and photographing ranch work from horseback on the Quarter Circle XL Ranch.

After sixteen years of New York City life, I moved to the tiny remote Badlands town of Interior, South Dakota (pop 69) - following the serendipitous path of my photography - with plans to continue my commitment to photograph the West - in search of adventure.

I got the adventure of a lifetime shortly after, when my photography led me to Lyle O’Bryan’s Quarter Circle XL Ranch south of Belvidere, South Dakota. I was given the opportunity to work as a ranch hand and learn all aspects of cowboying while working alongside an old time cowboy. I was a complete novice. This is when my life and photography changed drastically - prompting the start of my long term photographic series My Ranching Life. Transitioning from portraiture against painted backdrops to documentation from horseback. Changing roles from spectator to ‘cowboy’ - while getting into ‘costume’ and character.

I have always used my photography as a tool for attempting time travel. Working on the Quarter Circle XL Ranch is a bit like stepping back in time onto a Western movie backlot and into the history of ranching. The ranch was once home to Earl Thode – first world champion bronc rider of 1929 and his ranching family. It is quite a thrill riding across the same land and the same White River as the cowboys from the past. I feel as if I have stepped ‘inside the photograph’ - riding my Pony around and photographing within a diorama of the West. Somewhere between the past and present – between reality and fantasy.

The ranches south of Belvidere, South Dakota are rich with western heritage – with all cattle work done on horseback. This, and a traditionally dressed cowboy crew, create quite the historical visual against the backdrop of the land and cyclorama sky. I quickly photograph these scenes from horseback, while cowboying, with a Noblex 120 swing lens panoramic camera that I carry in my saddlebags. The Noblex gives me a medium format negative suitable for large-scale printing. The panoramic format lends a cinematic quality while also conveying the vastness of the landscape. The black & white film helps reverse time. My horse’s ears sometimes intentionally appear in some of the photographs – announcing my presence as part of the crew.

These photographs are a visual diary of what appear to be ‘film stills’ playing out in front of me. They represent a tiny fraction of the endless scenarios I have been part of, and witness to, while learning to cowboy and ranch. During the spring and summer we ‘neighbor’ with ten area ranches. This is when I get to work alongside a crew cowboys and cover many miles of pasture on horseback while documenting within a variety of landscapes. Creating photographs that, at first glance, could have been taken during another era. Depicting a profession that has changed little over the past century. The land, as backdrop, has a permanence all its own, but the cast of characters are bound to change. I hope to one day give a glimpse back to this time in South Dakota family ranching history. I am proud to currently be a part of it all.

I continue to ranch and photograph. So much has occurred since I jumped on my first horse. I am now managing the Quarter Circle XL Ranch. I am ever grateful to Lyle O’Bryan for being my cowboy mentor and saddle pal. These are the years of my life I will never forget. It has been quite the unscripted cinematic-like adventure so far.

Jean Laughton


Meyers, William. "On Photography: Life After Katrina, Life's Illusions and Cowboy's Life on the Ranch." WSJ. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 4 Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015

Aletti, Vince. "Goings on About Town: Art: Jean Laughton." The New Yorker. Condé Nast, Sept. 2015. Web. 15 Sept. 2015.

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