My Ranching Life by Jean Laughton
Ildiko Butler Gallery
May 22 – September 30, 2015
Reception: September 23, 2015, 6-8
“Branding Day on the Willard Ranch”
19.5” x 39”
It was a misty morning with most of the crew of cowboys in yellow slickers. After gathering and penning the herd, the crew is working the cows off the calves in preparation for branding. Farron Willard in the foreground.
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.
NEW YORK TIMES LENS BLOG
JEAN LAUGHTON PHOTOGRAPHY
MY RANCHING LIFE BLOG
MY RANCHING LIFE BILLBOARD
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.