Romantic ranching imagery lures photographers to the remote West. The reality, however, can be something completely different.
The staff at Western Horseman is fortunate that most ranchers welcome us to document their lives. It’s a responsibility and privilege we take seriously, and our greatest gift is to be invited to come back.
When I started photographing ranches more than 20 years ago, however, I learned that a few ranches have a closed-door policy to photographers and journalists. Safety, liability, interference with cattle work and the possibility of misrepresenting the ranch are understandably major concerns. Also, some folks simply don’t want to be in the spotlight.
Recently, more ranches are opening their gates to small groups of reputable photographers enrolled in photography workshops and tours. It’s a way to generate income, foster ranching heritage and share credible stories of ranching and agriculture to counter the misinformation spread by celebrity platforms and animal-rights activists who have never spent time on a real working ranch.
I’ve traveled with groups of photographers on a few ranches, including the Kokernot o6 Ranch in Fort Davis, Texas, Last Dollar Ranch in Ridgway, Colorado, and, last fall, the O RO Ranch in Prescott, Arizona.
As a journalist, I always seek a good story, but I also see a photography tour as an investment in myself to experiment with different cameras, lenses, settings and perspectives. That freedom has led to some of my most creative images — and my biggest learning opportunities.
Last September, I arrived at the O RO guest house late, after attending a ranch rodeo in Prescott where the ranch had a team competing. It was only about 50 miles from town to the ranch, but it seemed much longer driving in the dark and on an unfamiliar dirt road drenched from much-needed monsoon rains.
My four-wheel drive wouldn’t engage, so my vehicle careened along the slick, muddy road as I followed our tour leader, Holly Roark, who has her own photography business called Middle of Nowhere Photography. Holly’s husband, Jed, is the ranch foreman and horse trainer. As much as I tried to be prepared for unpredictable northern Arizona conditions, I was concerned I might embarrassingly have to ask him to pull me about of the mud at some point. That wasn’t the first impression I wanted to make.
Most everyone was asleep by the time we made it to the four-bedroom guest house, so I tiptoed to my quarters and began organizing my camera equipment for the next morning. I had brought my trusted gear, as well as two rented camera bodies and lenses I wanted to try. For some reason, one of my cameras wasn’t focusing so I stayed up into the early hours trying to find the problem.
Lesson #1: As much as I prepare, cars and cameras have minds of their own and will malfunction when I need them most!
Breakfast was prepared and served by 5 a.m. by Holly’s sister, Katrina Gould-Dawson, who traveled from Oregon to be our chef. She had three made-from-scratch squares on the table for us each day, and quickly became a favorite member of our group.
As we ate and drank coffee, everyone introduced themselves. Our diverse group included Western photographer and Cheryl Rogos from Sonoita, Arizona; ranch wife, mother and agricultural blogger and freelance journalist Savanna Simmons from Lusk, Wyoming; and Arizonan Julie May, an aspiring wildlife photographer who joins her husband on hunts at the ranch and raises saddle mules.
We were supposed to leave for the branding corral by 6 a.m., but ranch manager Chad Smith informed us that the road to the corral was really slick and muddy and the calves were wet, so we had to postpone until later in morning. So much for those warm, sunrise shots we strive for as photographers, but safety for everyone and the livestock is a priority. We made the most of our delay, though, talking about techniques to flatter horses and cowboys in photographs, and our responsibility as photographers to capture them at their best.
When things dried out, we loaded into an extended cab pickup and drove to the branding pen, stopping to take photos of cowboys gathering cattle as we encountered them. The pickup bed was the best seat to get the shots, and I spent most of my time riding there. The cowboy crew gathered a small bunch of cattle that needed branded for us to photograph. Even though the light was not ideal, dust, good cowboys and handy horses still made for engaging photographs.
After a lunch break, we focused our lenses on gathering, sorting and trailing horses, and took portraits of Jed and Chad on their ranch horses until the sun dipped below the Western horizon. We ended the day downloading and sharing images, eating a grilled steak dinner and talking with Chad about the rich history of the ranch.
Briefly, the O RO began as a Mexican land grant to the heirs of Don Luis Maria Baca. Also known as the Baca Float #5, it was one of five 100,0000-acre grants authorized by Congress in 1860 to the Baca heirs as compensation for the 500,000-acre Las Vegas Grant in a lawsuit. Colonel W.C. Greene, a wealthy land and cattle baron acquired the ranch in the 1930s and developed it until the 1970s when the JJJ Corporation bought it. Last year, the American Quarter Horse Association honored the ranch for its more than 75 years of breeding Quarter Horses.
A rawhide ranch steeped in legend and lore and horse heritage, the O RO is known for making or breaking cowboys with its ruggedness and remoteness. Cowboys all over the West spin stories of their hair-raising experiences on the ranch.
Under Chad’s management for more than seven years, the ranch is bolstering the bloodlines of its remuda, infusing contemporary genetics from stallions by A Smooth Guy, This Cats Smart and One Time Pepto with a strong Hancock foundation. The goal is to produce horses can go from the ranch to the arena.
Lesson #2: Few things in photography (or ranching) go as scheduled when horses, cattle and the weather are involved. But any time of day is enjoyable photographing on and learning about an iconic ranch.
Early the second day we loaded up in the truck again and cruised along ranch roads, looking for any signs of cowboys gathering yearlings to move the South Steer pasture, where they would be shipped in a couple of days.
We drove from one end of the ranch to the other. The topography was diverse, from high-desert hills and flats around 5,800 feet to Mount Hope that rises 7,234 feet in elevation. Occasionally, we’d see a cowboy trot over a ridge, but as we inched closer to the destination the more cattle and cowboys we saw converging into a corral below us.
Holly did her best to position us where we could get the best shots based on her own experience photographing on the ranch, and she also placed us where we wouldn’t interfere with the work or spook the cattle. Sometimes, though, a rogue cow decides to plow through a fence or something unexpected happens and the cattle start to swirl and scatter. We saw how things can get Western really fast. It still amazes me how quickly and smoothly skilled, cow-savvy cowboys and horses can get a situation under control without any injuries to horse, human or cow. It’s a scene better watched than photographed to fully appreciate it and out of respect.
Each of us had different things we wanted to photograph, from Jed working a colt to landscapes and barns and mares and foals. Holly and the O RO crew did their best to accommodate our individual interests and make sure we all had a great time.
Lesson #3: When you see cattle swirling and speeding up, resist the temptation to take photos. Lower the camera, stand still and let the cowboy crew get everything lined out again. They’ll thank you for it later!
The next morning, we collected any last-minute photos we wanted and wrapped up by sharing images and rolling laughter of our experiences the past few days. We were a diverse group of photographers who saw things vastly different, but we could all relate and learn from each other on one of the most historic and storied ranches in the West.
Even though a lot of my work involves taking ranch photos, this was a gift I gave myself for a weekend. It took me to a place I won’t forget and introduced me to people that continue to influence me in ways I never imagined.
Lesson #4: Photographers have their own way of seeing scenes and adjusting their camera settings. You have to find what’s right for your style and photography goals.
Watch for a story in Western Horseman this fall on the heritage and evolving horse program of the O RO Ranch.