Sunday, July 26, 2009

Creative Lights

I left the ranch last year a little disappointed for not capitalizing on certain opportunities. Failure, in some cases, can be a great catalyst for action. Luckily, I gave my self-loathing a break by coming out for a second summer.

One of the famous hikes on the ranch property leads up a steep and craggy trail to a peninsular outcropping where a 14-foot wooden cross looks out over the North Platte River and Medicine Bow National Forest. High and away from the lights of the ranch, it serves as a favorite destination for adventurous stargazers. The image I imagined was a long exposure of the Wyoming night sky around the time of a quarter moon. The moon would serve as ambient light to render detail in the rocks and background. With my GPS pointed North, I could get a clear reading on the position of Polaris. Over an hour and a half during the exposure, the earth slowly spun creating an effect of swirling constellations.

About ten years ago, the ranch contracted a craftsman from New Mexico to build a traditional chuckwagon. The covered wagons were used back in the late 1800s as the preferred method for travel across long distances, especially in the west. I wanted to create an image that paid homage to the brave and hopeful souls that wondered through these rough and endless expanses. On a clear night, just before sunset I headed up to Slim’s Draw with one of my photography students. We positioned the chuckwagon to line a series of pines looking off into the western skyline. With two strobes and two cowboy hats we climbed into the chuckwagon and set my camera on a wireless trigger system. While the camera exposed the image we popped two flashes directly behind our heads to project our silhouettes on the canvas. We tried this several times before adjusting our positions to create the father and son look that you see now.

Camping in the backcountry of the ranch is always an adventure. From mountain lions to bears, to curious cows that wonder in from the hillsides, you never know what tracks you’re going to find surrounding your tent in the morning. The nighttime is especially beautiful when the firewood is dry and the cloud cover is at a minimum. I always enjoy taking pictures of my favorite campsites and this one in particular, alongside the slow trickle of South Mullen Creek, ranks in my top ten. To make this photo, I lit the inside of the tent with a high-powered flashlight and then doused the fire with water to send a plume of smoke into the sky. Then, during a 30-second exposure I painted each lodgepole pine with another flashlight.

Here, with two of my favorite students Lucie Coleman and Willis McCrickard, we gave a quick shout-out to the A Bar A Ranch using logs we lit on fire. Fun!

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Mass on the Mountain

Every year the Guyol family, comprising of nearly 20 people, visits the ranch to celebrate a long-standing tradition of horseback riding and fly-fishing. A devout group, they even bring their pastor, Father Ralph Wright.

Their annual customs range anywhere from interfamily soccer games to horseshoe tournaments, but their most colorful and bonding tradition is a sunrise mass high atop a mountain.

Since there no roads lead to the summit each family member helps to haul a makeshift alter, the challis, bibles, wine, and bread to the rocky top. Gaining over 700 feet of elevation, the Cross-, as it’s known, is no easy hike, especially in the pre-dawn Wyoming climate. Regardless, every year a spry 73-year-old Father Ralph hustles up the mountain followed by his loyal disciples.

Just before he blesses the wine, the sun crests the eastern range. I may not be Catholic or part of the Guyol brigade, but it’s hard not to feel some sense of belonging amidst so much passion. It’s a beautiful scene and I feel fortunate to be part of their intimate ritual.

Monday, July 6, 2009

4th of July

What else could be more patriotic than celebrating America’s independence on a ranch in the Cowboy State?

One thing is for certain: A Bar A knows how to throw down. Over 400 people attend the celebration, 200 of which come from the neighboring towns (more like villages), to eat, drink, and watch some explosions in the sky.

Sparklers by the hundreds are handed out with children running and dancing behind them.

Children of all ages.

4th of July, especially here, holds a sort of timelessness; maybe it's the cowboy hats or maybe it's the subtle smell of horse manure wafting in from the corral. Regardless, nothing epitomizes the spirit of the wild west as accurately as the ranching culture. Viewed by some as the most productive and effective stewards of land conservation, cowboys and ranchers dedicate their lives to learning the natural rhythms and idiosyncrasies of their land.

Although techniques and equipment have evolved since the 19th century, most of the traditional values and practices attributed to the cowboy still remain. Their persistence and enduring resolve, regardless of the technologically driven world on the periphery, adhere them to an ancient code of ethics. They remain forever idolized as an American icon of freedom and independence.