Out West

The West Lives On

highway in the desert

Photographer Anouk Krantz’s book American Cowboys presents a contemporary affirmation that our cowboy culture is not only alive, but thriving.

The “cowboy renaissance” of the 1980s brought forth an array of wonderfully diverse, large format coffee table books that celebrated the cowboy and his life. He was not disappearing actually but rather going along and minding his own business. Photographers came from far and near to capture examples of these uniquely American individuals.

In William Albert Allard’s 1983 book, Vanishing Breed, Photographs of the Cowboy West, the cover image shows a mounted cowboy at full gallop racing across an empty landscape. Upon first viewing, one might ask, “Is he running away from something or towards something? Is this the last cowboy? Montana writer Thomas McGuane aptly addresses that last question, in his Foreword to the book where he makes the case that no matter what, the West is still out there, going strong. “The West vanished for the Indian and the drover; it vanished for the cowboy. Simultaneously it reappeared in all the same places, and in movies and rodeos. It’s like fire. Hollywood, calf tables and depreciation schedules can’t kill it.”

Hollywood indeed followed with films such as The Grey Fox, Barbarosa, Tom Horn, Pale Rider and Silverado, not to mention the television mini-series, Lonesome Dove.

Over the next forty years, the cowboy as the subject of books, television and movies would come and go – but never disappear. He can’t because we won’t let him. A recent example is producer Taylor Sheridan’s series Yellowstone and its subsequent spin-offs that put the cowboy and his life front and center, but in a more contemporary – and high drama setting. Everything evolves. So it was not surprising to see another book of cowboy images come on the scene. What was unusual is that book was created not by an endemic Western photographer, but by a French woman from New York. Anouk Masson Krantz has created an intimate set of images showing that the cowboy, his family, his life and his world is doing just fine – thriving actually – and continuing to evolve with each new generation. Her book American Cowboys (Images Publishing, 2021) a massive 304-page volume, served up in a generous (14-inches by 11-inches) presentation celebrating today’s horse and cow culture – from working and rodeo cowboys and cowgirls, to their families and communities. The superbly designed black and white images place her subjects front and center – in many cases with a limitless sky and landscape.

“I am Navajo,” says eight-time National Finals Rodeo qualifier Derek Begay. “Growing up on the reservation, everyday survival was a challenge within our tribe. We scraped by without electricity or running water. Each day offered choices and with perseverance, sacrifice, and grit there are dreams out there for the taking. My grandmother always said, ‘If it is up to anybody, it is up to you.’ The world is endlessly beautiful, if you know where to look. I love my life as an American cowboy, living the American Dream.” Photo by Anouk Krantz

In the Foreword to American Cowboys, the afore-mentioned, uber-producer, creator Taylor Sheridan (Yellowstone, Hell or High Water, Wind River) writes about the job of cowboying. “To call it a job is inaccurate. Jobs come with regulated hours and a clearly defined description of duties. The cowboy’s job changes daily and ends when it’s over. Cowboys must be comfortable in solitude and capable of working in large groups. They must be extremely proficient at their job because at some point a cow’s life, a horse’s life or the life of another cowboy will depend on it…it is wordless poetry. It is theatre without audience. It is symphony without strings.”

Talking with Krantz about her book it is quite apparent this was a work of passion, but that she came to it in an unusual way. Born and raised in France, she came to America in the late 1990s; completing her high school at the Lycee Francais in New York City and earned her Bachelor’s degree while working for a lifestyle magazine. Following college she worked at Cartier’s corporate office in New York that oversees the Americas. She later studied at the International Center of Photography and said her love of the American West started after attending a local rodeo while traveling in the Southwest.

“I was always intrigued by the notion of the Wild West and the American cowboy,” she told me on the phone from New York. “I wanted to see for myself the vast rolling hills and expanses of ranchland underneath those enormous skies. And I thought if I captured the contemporary aspects of the cowboy life, it would be very important for me to make sure I capture it in an elegant way that speaks to people in an inviting, yet authentic way.”

“Seven generations of the Hearst family have known and loved this ranch and for over 150 years we have been raising excellent cattle and horses on California’s Central Coast,” says Stephen T. Hearst, great-grandson to William Randolph Hearst, and an executive of the Hearst Corporation. “These agricultural roots are a fundamental part of my family’s identity and our success every day is still dependent on these same core values: discipline, honesty, diligence, cooperation, and perseverance. We are completely dedicated to this way of life and proud to have placed these lands into conservation to ensure these values remain engrained in future generations.” Photo by Anouk Krantz

The book does have a very international feel to it, the black and white images are not captioned but the scenes they depict are self-descriptive with subjects doing the work of ranches and stockman as well as rodeo activities and even some downtime – having a beer and discussing the day’s events. One begins to realize going through the book just how “up close and personal” she was able to get with her subjects. This is a skill developed by someone good with people and being able to put even total strangers at ease. It even surprised her.

“I was raised with very similar values that I found in westerners – politeness and humility,” she said, “but even then I knew that I was an outsider, I am French and I live in the northeast. But I was raised with those same values in France. Both my parents were born in the Second World War and they had a very tough upbringing. It was very hard raising my two siblings and myself. But ultimately they did well. We lived and valued hard work and integrity, dignity and respect and opening the door and saying thank you and just listening to people. Also I know my early professional careers helped me greatly. I worked at Cartier and at Barney’s New York on Madison Avenue and that helped me to get to know American people and working in those high-end stores helped me to work with people of all stations in life and putting them first. And my new cowboy friends and their families could feel that, I hope. Yes they were subjects for my photography but they new I respected them and what they did.”

I asked how it worked. How she was able to effectively convince people to let her photograph what in many cases are very private moments with very private people. She laughed and said, “I had to be politely consistent and a bit of a pest and finally just told one of the ranchers I wanted to photograph, ‘Tom, come on, trust me. I am not going to do anything bad, this is going to be great! You will be happy that you took this leap of faith.’ So I was finally invited and stayed for five days. The first day, I came for breakfast, it was maybe 5 o’clock in the morning, and the whole family was there. His mother was there, and I think there were three or four generations sitting at the table from little, littles to grandparents. It was really great, but it was dead quiet; no one would talk to me. I think they were all looking at my lips when I was speaking because they all couldn’t quite understand my accent. And so we went on, they were gathering and branding that day and I tend to really remove myself because I don’t like breathing down anyone’s neck. I think the images show that.”

And then some, Krantz seems to find a way to discover diverse and interesting people and the get them to open up. The book’s images have almost a sculptural feel in that she has been able to capture her subjects in action in a most natural way – whether it’s kids loading horses, young people at a rodeo or a roping or some cowgirls on the town. The viewer is left with the feeling that everyone she photographs is quite capable of taking care of whatever comes along, which makes sense because we are talking about people who are around horses and cattle all the time – by choice.

American Cowboys is not Krantz’s first book; her two previous volumes include Wild Horses of Cumberland Island and West: The American Cowboy. Her work has earned accolades from the International Photography Awards and International Monochrome Awards. And this is not her last book on the West as she is finishing a work on an in-depth look at Art and Catherine Nicholas’ Wyoming Wagonhound Ranch, out in the fall of this year.

Asking Krantz what her big takeaway was with American Cowboys she said it was a fortifying experience, “What I learned is that westerners – men, women, parents, grandparents, and children from diverse backgrounds are all united by common values and are measured by what they produce and can contribute. They created communities and civilizations from scratch, built upon their ingenuity, determination, cooperation, and hard work. And to this day, their continued survival depends upon the daily contributions of all. We are all well-served to be reminded of the great enduring values of the cowboy that continue to represent one of the foundational pillars of this great country that is America.”

Anouk Krantz. Photo courtesy Anouk Krantz

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