It would be easy to call Michael Crouser’s photo essay on cowboys a message from the past. His work has a purity that makes it appear uncomplicated, like the West we romanticize. There is more to the scenes of cowpunching than meets the eye, however.
The cowboys and the cattle they ranch look just as you would imagine them back when cattle drives were still modern transportation because there wasn’t enough track for the Santa Fe steam trains. Railroads wouldn’t have made much difference where Crouser shot, out in northwest Colorado, defined by the mountains and their tendency to keep out most invited visitors and to have weather that chases away the rest.
Those who brave the elements find cattle ranching hasn’t been changed much by the tools that make so many other fields function efficiently. No robotic assembly line can keep the cattle in check as well as a few dogs. The technology behind self-driving cars won’t make it any easier to brand a steer or shoe a horse. And social media? Son of a buck, there’s just no point.
Instead, think of those iron tools in the background of the 1948 film “Red River.” They’re still being used, and some of them in Crouser’s book “Mountain Ranch” could be as old as that John Wayne movie. Same with the cowboy uniform of jeans and chaps, work gloves and vests and, of course, the hat. There are no pristine Stetsons on the Sweetwater Ranch. These boys’ hats have been stomped on and sweated in and worn through rain and snow, which is just how they look.
About that look: You can see that Crouser shot in black and white, and we’re not talking about going grayscale on the computer after uploading a few gigs. During the years he spent on this assignment, Crouser shot Tri-X film, and when he wasn’t shooting the 35 mm version, he was loading it into his Pentax 6x7—which for you bucks is a medium-format SLR whose negatives measure 6 centimeters by 7 centimeters.
Negatives: Remember those? Now, back in the cowboys’ heyday, you couldn’t run to town and buy a roll of film with your 5 pounds of beans. In this tech heyday, the modern cowboy knows a thing or two about bits and bytes, so when they asked why he was using film, and ask they did, Crouser had an answer.
“I have always believed that how you say something is as important as what you say,” he writes in the book. “For me, that means tactile photography. It means holding, loading, rewinding, and stashing film away in a pocket. Maybe even dropping the film accidentally in the dirt and going back to look for it. It means processing film in liquid, hanging it in air, and printing the image with light on paper.”
Those resulting prints are rich and dark, as if Crouser went into the darkroom without changing out of his jeans and a touch of soil from the corral had slipped into his Dektol developer, making the shadows deeper. The result is a stark look at mountain life, spare but stunning in the way he captures simplicity in nature.
Like the men on horseback, Crouser is holding on to the tools of his trade, tools that don’t come with digital apps. The men on horseback are holding on to tools from another time. Iron rods and barbed wire, like Crouser’s oversized Pentax camera, bind them to way of life that prospered before we became so busy with the devices that are supposed to save us time.
The future of wrangling cattle isn’t much brighter than the future of Tri-X, though. In ranching, the way of life faces pressures from the next generation’s dwindling interest in living on the land, not to mention that land is becoming so valuable that the inheritance tax pushes some families to sell. The buyers, needless to say, have no intention of running cattle.
In addition to the candid photos of men, horses, cattle and brush, Crouser preserves the cowboy life with a series of portraits. Shot in open shade, often against a dark background, the stories of the men and not just a few women are told in their eyes and on their skin: stories of spending a night in a cabin on a deserted homestead, of sharing sloppy Joes after a day of branding or of day after day on horseback in the mountains with no one to talk to but God above.
His most beautiful pictures are his quietest, the landscape images of the Rockies and the clouds towering over them as tall as the mountains themselves. He sees a valley and gives it depth you forgot can come from a photograph. Maybe that’s because his prints are made from light on paper and dried in air. More likely, it’s his artist’s touch, a touch that has less to do with art school and a lot to do with the outdoors.
“Sometimes I feel that my photographs have more in common with ceramics, or even mud pies, than with digital photographs. This isn’t retro. This is who I am and who I’ve always been,” he concludes.
Here’s to hoping that the way of life Crouser captured in Colorado always lives on somewhere, maintaining a connection to the past and intriguing visionary photographers.
Stephen Wolgast is an instructor at the A.Q. Miller School of Journalism and Mass Communications at Kansas State University. You can write him at [email protected]